| Theater |

WaterTower's Out of the Loop Fringe Fest Attracts a Slew of Sharp One- and Two-actor Shows.

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"That awkward moment when ..." is a running theme in some of the best shows in this year's busy Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Going on one more weekend, the festival crams more than 60 performances of 22 different productions into its 11-day schedule. Shows perform concurrently on large and small stages in WaterTower's three venues. (Dallas Observer is a sponsor of the event.)

A favorite on opening weekend was the engaging new two-person play International Falls, written by and starring Thomas Ward. In this 90-minute dramedy, awkward moments keep piling up. Tim, the sad-sack stand-up comic played by Ward, is a lower-tier Louis CK type, wracked with self-loathing and lacking the energy to write better material that could move him up the ladder to stardom. In his beige room at a Holiday Inn in the titular Minnesota burg where he's just finished another mediocre set, Tim is entertaining a woman named Dee (Sherry Jo Ward). Or rather, she's entertaining him. In our first glimpse of the couple, she's giving him a vigorous handjob under the covers.

Tim asks her name after he hits the punchline, so to speak. He doesn't remember her as the desk clerk who checked him in and flirted a little earlier in the day. He's brought Dee back from the comedy club and seems less eager for sex than in having someone nice to talk to for a few hours. Tim is so comfortable with Dee he forgoes niceties like putting his pants back on. She's fully clothed in a pretty red dress and knee-high boots. He's in saggy blue boxer-briefs with a pale wave of flesh cresting over the waistband. "I'm in for the night," he says, flopping into a chair. She's left to wonder if she's supposed to stay or go.


Out of the Loop Fringe Festival

Out of the Loop Fringe Festival continues through March 11 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison. Call 972-450-6232.

What transpires between Tim and Dee in their two-ships-passing encounter ebbs from awkwardness to intimacy to something beautiful and nearly profound. These characters are kindred spirits masking their deep loneliness with jokes. If Dee has hooked up with Tim hoping for advice about achieving her dream of doing stand-up, she's deflated when he starts dissecting all the "bullshit premises" hack comics use at the microphone: "I just broke up with my girlfriend" and "I was at the DMV yesterday." Why do all comics tell dick jokes? Dee asks. "Because the audience keeps laughing," says Tim. He's quitting the business, he tells Dee. Comedy just makes him too depressed.

International Falls is based in part on Ward's own experiences as a road comic eight years ago, and inspired, says Ward (now a college prof in Waco), by the comedy of Louis CK, the morose monologues of podcaster/comic Marc Maron and by the "lobby waffles" of chain hotels across the Midwest. The play has the wistful rom-com sweetness of Terrence McNally's Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, another two-hander about sad people who find each other at the worst moments of their lives. Ward's play, though, has its own style of relaxed wit, with glimpses of Tim performing his club act — still in his underpants — between bedroom vignettes with Dee.

Director Bradley Jones keeps the action natural and the tone of the piece quiet and unforced. Thomas and Sherry Jo Ward, married in real life, are perfect stage partners, with none of that self-conscious unease some acting couples fall into when they face each other in live theater. The Wards' playful physical connection helps us believe in their characters' strong chemistry.

It's easy to fall in love with International Falls.

Kevin J. Thornton really is a stand-up comic and his solo show, Strange Dreamz, was full of awkward moments in its first matinee at Loop. The crowd was small and subdued and Thornton kept apologizing when his jokes didn't get the laughs he thought they deserved. Probably didn't help that he opened with one of the oldest and hoariest stand-up tropes: "I just broke up with my boyfriend." Oops.

A regular on the gay comedy and festival circuits, Thornton does an hour of short rants and personal stories interrupted by his folky versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancin' in the Dark," Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and other pop tunes. He's a good singer and guitarist. His anecdote about how he inherited his grandfather's 1950s guitar is a highlight of the show.

He's no David Sedaris, however. His stories don't build with any momentum or smart turns of phrase. The only memorable bit has him giving advice to hetero men he thinks are trespassing into the gay world: "Dear straight guy, please stop going to brunch. Don't come to our Oscar parties. And take off that scarf. It's fucking August."

For grown-ups yearning for something more elegant and sophisticated at the Loop Fest, catch Dallas actress and singer Diana Sheehan's one-woman cabaret, Midway: Crisis or Carnival. Her thesis is: How do you cope with the midlife blues? Give in to regret? Or dive headlong into the future?

Sheehan's answer is evident in the 19 songs she uses to express how she felt as she hit her mid-40s. Opening with Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched," she turns it into a giddy awakening into a new state of consciousness (with a side of unabashed sex). As skilled an interpreter of lyrics as Betty Buckley or veteran New York club chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci, Sheehan uses the music to tell her own stories through the words of the Gershwins, Sondheim, Irving Berlin, John Bucchino, Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel.

Musical director and keyboardist James McQuillen is joined on the tiny Stone Cottage stage by cellist Sarah Choi and bass player Lincoln Apeland. With Sheehan perched on a stool at the microphone, the lights catching the sparkle of sequins on her vintage gown, all that's missing is the bottle of Champagne chilling in a bucket tableside. Sheehan's bubbly personality and intoxicating singing will just have to do.

Three years ago Out of the Loop hosted Canadian actor Charlie Ross' One Man Star Wars and they brought him back this year to perform his One Man Lord of the Rings. He's toured the world with this solo production, sanctioned by the Tolkien family and blessed by Ian "Gandalf" McKellen, who caught the show in Vancouver. Using just his voice and body movement, Ross acts out all three LOTR films, including opening credits, in 70 minutes.

Ross is a wonderful mimic, capturing the vocal quirks and physical silhouettes of Gollum, Frodo, Gandalf and other major characters. But he talks fast — has to get it all in — and sometimes it's hard to hear his funny asides, like when he ends a big scene and says under his breath, "Change the DVD."

On opening night at Loop (Ross performed only the first weekend), the actor seemed tired and thirsty, stopping three times to drain bottles of water. There were microphone problems that seemed to throw Ross' rhythm off. At one point, he lost his place in the script and had to look up at his stage manager in the balcony and ask what his next line was. Talk about awkward.

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