The minimalism is intentional. Both plays are works of words, not action. Both feature actors who speak dialogue directly to the audience, no interaction with anyone else onstage. And both are plays that hint only vaguely at any sort of plot, with the emphasis instead on vocal characterization and a progression of mood.
Conor McPherson's The Good Thief, ending its short run October 5 in the Black Box Theater at McKinney Avenue Contemporary, is the odder and less effective of the two. Sitting center stage, dressed in scuffed work boots, black jeans and black jacket over white wife-beater, an unnamed, shaven-headed Irish hooligan (played by David Garver) spends about 70 minutes recounting a weird crime spree that landed him in prison. The story involves violent arse-kickings, multiple murders and a double kidnapping that ends in a gang rape. But the way Garver tells it in his quiet, often sing-songy brogue, most of these events sound no more startling than a Sunday outing to the zoo.
As directed by Cecil O'Neal, The Good Thief hums along without many highs and lows. Garver, who bears a slight resemblance to Stanley Tucci, doesn't set off many fireworks performance-wise, and he lets his energy flag toward the middle of the story, which frankly is so circuitous it's hard to follow anyway. It's a frustratingly static performance. When Garver does rise out of that chair to move around the empty acting space, he traverses only within a small arc. Is his character trapped in a tiny cell or a corner of a barroom? We never find out.
McPherson, at 32 one of Ireland's most prolific and heralded new playwrights, also has done some screenwriting, notably the Pulp Fiction-esque crime drama I Went Down (1997). The Good Thief sounds like a screenplay being read aloud, with one actor playing all the parts. The language can be inventive and evocative. "The kitchen had every modern appliance," he says. "For some reason that made me mad." But what's more entertaining, hearing someone describe a bloody shootout and a nearly botched getaway with terrified hostages in tow, or seeing it depicted shot-for-shot with our own eyes?
It's that old show-don't-tell rule. The Good Thief makes the mistake of being all tell, which results in too dull a show.
Love Letters, A.R. Gurney's epistolary bit of reader's theater, gets better results in the hands (and voices) of the new Contemporary Theatre of Dallas company, opening its season in Addison before moving to permanent quarters near Lower Greenville next year.
Sue Loncar and Earl Browning III play Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd, a couple of old-money East Coast WASPs who carry on lively correspondence from second grade to middle age. The conceit of Gurney's script is that the actors aren't required to memorize the lines. They sit behind desks, reading their letters, which serve as conversations, sometimes chatty, sometimes formal. But they never look at each other, Melissa and Andy. Theirs is all interior dialogue spoken aloud.
Gurney's writing can be bitterly funny, and he accurately captures the changing rhythms of his characters' thoughts and emotions from juvenile silliness right up through late-in-life ennui. As children, Melissa and Andy write about camp, cats and the horrors of dancing school. But even then, little home truths start to sneak into their notes. "You're a victim of your parents," young Melissa writes to Andy, adding that she's drawn a picture of him as a bear dancing on a chain.
Andy remains chained to his heritage throughout his life, it turns out. He goes to college and into the navy (post-World War II), then Harvard Law and a career in Republican politics. Melissa, longing to be an artist but hampered by wealth and her own family's expectations, marries badly, falls in and out of depression and rehabs and loses custody of her children. In her 40s, in a last stab at happiness, she strikes up a longed-for affair with her old friend Andy, now married to someone else and afraid of career-ruining scandal. That ends badly, too. And the exchange of letters, sadly, has to stop.
As clever as Gurney's writing is, Love Letters is still a pretty thin piece of theater. What elevates this production are the subtle, touching performances by Browning and Loncar and the deft pacing of the actors by director Carolyn Houston Boone.
In the first act, Browning's Andy and Loncar's Melissa look and sound like gangly kids as they begin to express their little squeaks of passion for each other in hastily scrawled thank-you cards and Christmas greetings. By Act 2, their characters are adults, spines stiffened and emotions hardened. We see this transition in the actors' eyes and physical silhouettes. We hear it in Browning's performance of the older Andy as a stuffy, lockjawed snob and in Loncar's voice as Melissa becomes whiskey-soaked and roughened up by melancholy.
Constrained by the gimmick of the play, it can't be easy for actors to get past the feeling of being in eternal rehearsal mode. But this production makes it all about as believable and honest as Love Letters can be. These actors move us to care deeply about two rather unlikable people. By the time that last mournful letter is read, we wish things had turned out better for them both.