Uptown Player's Art and Science Needs More of One, Less of the Other

When a new play hits a stage in near-perfect form — like Matt Lyle's Barbecue Apocalypse, the sizzling comedy headlining as a world premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Fest this month — it can look too easy. Dialogue crackles with originality; the plot veers off in unexpected directions. Audiences love it. Everything flows.

Plays as snappy and fresh as Lyle's look and sound that way because they've been worked on, maybe workshopped and reworked until they're ripe and ready. Apocalypse had a staged reading at last year's New Works Festival. It's a much funnier play now.

New plays can also suffer from being overworked and overwritten, which is the case with Second Thought Theatre's debut of Steven Walters' Booth, a bio-drama about Lincoln's assassin. That one feels like an epic screenplay struggling to fit into a small theater. Once Walters, who also directed Booth, steps back from it for a bit, he'll figure out where it belongs. He's got something interesting there, but maybe it's not what he thought it was when he put it on the stage.

Two more world premieres opened in Dallas theaters this week: Art and Science by James Wesley at Uptown Players, upstairs at the Kalita Humphreys Theater; and Cara Mia Theatre's The Magic Rainforest, An Amazon Journey by José Cruz González at the Latino Cultural Center.

Dallas' core professional theaters lately have welcomed more new work, especially by local playwrights. We're all weary of Noises Off and Hamlet and the smart theatermakers know that. They're looking for original scripts that will appeal to target audiences.

Uptown Players, whose shows emphasize themes about contemporary gay life, is taking a chance with Art and Science, directed by Jason St. Little, wedging the show into its schedule between regular season offerings. Playwright and actor James Wesley, now a New Yorker, starred in Uptown's The Wild Party and Lyric Stage's 110 in the Shade when he lived here. He turned to playwriting after moving east and his play The Unbroken Circle, starring Brady Bunch actress Eve Plumb, ran for six months Off-Broadway last year.

If Art and Science were being presented as a workshop, its flaws would be forgivable. But as a "world premiere" of a script headed to a New York production? It's rough. And dull. And talky, weepy and dreary. Nowhere near ready for a Dallas audience, much less New York.

Wesley based the story on his real-life friendship with a revered voice coach he worked with in the 1990s. In the play, the teacher is Robert (played earnestly by Dallas actor David Benn), a devout Christian Scientist who suffers a stroke and refuses medical treatment. His former student, an out-gay actor named Adam (charming and handsome Christopher Cassarino), doesn't understand Robert's religious views and rails at the old man's stubborn insistence on substituting prayer (by phone from a "practitioner") for physical therapy.

The living room two-hander starts slowly with an unnecessary opening scene and then stays stuck in idle as Robert and Adam spend two hours arguing the merits of Mary Baker Eddy's philosophy versus conventional medical treatment. Toward the end, Robert divulges painful secrets about his days as a closeted Army officer. Leaving the service, he had to sign away his future veteran's benefits, making him ineligible for VA care. The current VA hospital controversy connects as a topical issue, though it's talked about so late in the play, it feels like a last-minute add-on.

"It's much easier to live within the confines of no than with the possibility of yes," says Robert to Adam in a Tuesdays with Morrie moment. Um, what? Shouldn't that be the other way around? This bad play gives bad advice.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner