Mat Finish

Muscular young men rolling around on each other in skintight unitards sounds like a scene from one of the Uptown Players' sellout shows. But the intensely though probably unintentionally (let's hope) homoerotic drama The Wrestling Season is onstage at Dallas Children's Theater, which is presenting Laurie Brooks' gay-themed one-act as part of its first Young Adult Festival of Dramatic Works.

Set in a high school gym, the play uses the competitive world of high school wrestling as a metaphor for the problems of adolescence. On the big green mat center stage, a circle outlined in bright yellow marks the spot for troubled young titans to grapple with their inner demons--and each other. There hasn't been this much sweaty boy-on-boy action in a local theater since...well, come to think of it, since the week before last when Mambo Italiano opened at Uptown.

Like a Cinemax version of the old after-school special, The Wrestling Season lays out its all-too-familiar teen stereotypes. Matt (Andy Bean) and Luke (Chad M. Peterson) are the team studs all the girls want to date and all the boys want to see fail. When another wrestler, Willy (Dane Hereford), starts a rumor about locker room canoodling between Matt and Luke, Heather (Shannon Hathaway), a classic high school bitch-goddess, can't wait to send out the gossip-gram.

To counter the gay smear, Matt takes up with popular Melanie (Jennifer Knight), whose many ex-boyfriends have rewarded her generosity by dubbing her "Cherry" Garcia. To prove he's all man, Matt very nearly date-rapes the girl, causing her to confess some bitter truths about her sex life. And Luke, whose nickname around school is "Mr. Can't-Do-Wrong," suddenly can't do anything right, including figuring out if he really does have those feelings for his cute buddy Matt.

Circling the action is the only grown-up character, a stripe-shirted referee (Mark Oristano, who's been in so many plays recently, I suspect he has a twin). Fweeeeep! goes his whistle as he stops whatever's happening on the mat. He calls out "Flagrant misconduct!" or "Illegal hold," depending on the point playwright Brooks is trying to pile-drive at that moment.

The Wrestling Season has so many messages in its text, it should be underwritten by Western Union. Brooks wants to show how brutal high school sports are on young psyches--Matt obsessively starves and purges daily to get his weight down--but she also takes on homophobia, hate speech, looks-ism, parental neglect and the evils of cheerleading. That's a lot of fists in the air for a play that lasts just more than an hour.

She's also not so original with dialogue. "You think you know me, but you don't," each kid says earnestly. That's close to the catchphrase of MTV's Diary series. Other lines could have come from The Young and the Restless. "I thought you and I would be good for each other," Matt tells Melanie. She answers, predictably, "I guess you were wrong about that."

What elevates DCT's production above the soapiness is the elegant direction by Rene Moreno and the beautifully choreographed, visually stunning wrestling and dance sequences by Moreno's frequent collaborator, movement expert Sara Romersberger. Other advisers to the cast and directors were Highland Park High School wrestling coach Tim Marzuola and his wrestler-son Joey, and retired professional wrestler and author Lisa Whitsett. The artistry they bring to the mat says more about the sport and the kids in it than anything in Brooks' clunky script.

The young actors, too, are on their game all the way through. Bean, Peterson, Hathaway and Knight are particularly skilled with the wrestling moves, as well as with moving their characters beyond the thinly written scenarios and into some touching emotional territory.

Immediately after the last scene, before the audience has a chance to head for the exits, the cast returns in character to engage in a discussion of the play's controversial themes. Audience members, many of them young teens on opening night, are invited to give instant feedback on which characters they think had the "most objectionable behavior." The actors, still in character, then give little scripted-sounding responses that I suppose are intended to leave conflicted youngsters with some new insights. This epilogue left me feeling trapped in a forced and very public conversation about delicate issues that frankly might be better addressed between parent and child in the car on the way home.

Chain saws are serious business. So are pistols waving hither and thither just inches from the front row. But the brandishing of weapons and power tools is supposed to elicit big yuks in Den of Thieves, the first production at the new Dallas Hub Theater in Deep Ellum.

Yuk is right. At just 95 minutes (counting a 10-minute intermission), Den of Thieves still feels like a thief of time. Some scenes ticked by so slowly I thought my Timex Indiglo had stopped dead.

Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote this play in 1997, before he made a big splash in New York with the profane and violent prison drama Jesus Hopped the "A" Train (done here last year by Kitchen Dog Theater). Den is a bargain-basement comedy about career criminals, 12-step program jargon and a heist gone awry. If there had never been a Sopranos or an Analyze This and That, maybe this thing would seem less like a hacky rehash of situations and characters we've seen before.

Produced and directed by Tim Shane, Den of Thieves boasts a cast of seven whose jittery acting reeks of fake enthusiasm and a lack of technique. Acting this overeager and obvious usually is reserved for Kool-Aid commercials and high school UIL contests. Shane commits that cardinal sin of directing, too, lining up his actors like a firing squad instead of moving them around in interesting ways.

Execution is a problem with everyone onstage. As shoplifter Maggie, Allison McCorkle either fails to achieve a passable Brooklyn accent or she has a terrible speech impediment. As Paul, Maggie's 12-step partner, Ramses Paul is dressed like Urkel and plays his part as though trying to channel Eddie Murphy's idiotic Jiff from Bowfinger. Both images are at odds with Guirgis' depiction of Paul as a smooth, though insecure, master criminal.

Carrie Pickering, letting it all hang out as a hooker named Boochie, chews gum (making her dialogue unintelligible) and wears a skirt so obscenely short she Sharon Stones the audience. As Sal, a gun-waving hoodlum, Baris Tuncer speaks in an accent Benicio del Toro couldn't decipher. James Warila, as a mobster named Little Tuna, is such a wooden actor you want to use that chain saw on him. And Jeff Swearingen, so exciting a month ago as a Cockney git in Theatre Quorum's Dealer's Choice, has gone slumming in this crowd as a Latino hip-hopper named Flaco. He was more believable as a Cockney.

Even with better performers, Den of Thieves still wouldn't amount to much. The jokes are dumb and the situation downright icky. When the four hapless thieves are caught mid-heist by the mobsters, they have to pick one of their own to be shot at dawn as punishment. (Ah, now I get the firing-squad blocking.) Much of Act 2 takes place with Boochie, Flaco, Maggie and Paul tied to folding chairs with pillowcases over their heads. That image is just too reminiscent of those disturbing videos of hostages in the Middle East.

To appreciate good theater, perhaps it's valuable now and then to witness the other kind. That would be the only reason to recommend Den of Thieves.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner