Greene’s Saucy Tabasco, Virgil's Pillow Fight

Five Days, Five Plays

Around this time of year, fleeing New York becomes a fearsome temptation. With gray skies overhead and gray slush underfoot, those "Come to Jamaica" TV spots or U.S. Virgin Islands subway ads can take on a positively totemic significance. But if an actual vacation isn't in the offing, virtual travel via theater can possibly substitute. A frenetic week spent Off- and Off-Off Broadway offered a host of exotic locales: Carthaginian palace, Alpine resort, San Francisco apartment, Mexican village, even a London actuarial house. But no milieu—no matter how glamorous—provided much in the way of escapism. Each play, and its more or less indifferent production, depicted an environment of misguided virtues and ill-enjoyed vices—no fun in the sun for anyone at all.

The titular characters of Prospect Theater's Dido (& Aeneas) (West End Theatre) do initially make merry. With some help from Cupid and a well-timed rainstorm, the widowed queen and her boy-Troy get hot and heavy in a stone-strewn cave (ow). Of course, the gods and destiny interfere. Yet more interfering still is the notion—courtesy of adapters Cara Reichel and Roxane Heinze—of interweaving the Purcell/Tate opera with lite-FM numbers. Though the young cast tries gamely to be heard over the four-piece band, the furious and mythic cede to sophomoric pop rock. Speaking of sophomores, the production also features a pillow fight.

In the Mint Theater's production of Arthur Schnitzler's Far and Wide no feathers fly, but some of their lightness would not have gone amiss. In an appealing if convoluted script, Schnitzler attempts to wed Chekhov to Ibsen with Strindberg as flower girl. The lazy country locales, veneer of social problems, and dashes of proto-expressionism don't make for such a hopeless marriage. The action swirls around the disloyal manufacturer Friedrich and his unhappy wife Genia (the lovely Lisa Bostnar) and their assorted circle of friends and adulterers. Apparently, as the tennis court set suggests, life and love are merely a game—so why does nearly no one in this production seem to enjoy playing it? Jonathan Bank's direction and adaptation maintains much of Schnitzler's intelligent sympathy and psychological acuity, but little of his subtlety and grace. There's no need for an overhead smash when an elegant backhand is all that's required.

Dido (& Aeneas):  love dashed by need to found Rome
Photo: Cara Reichel
Dido (& Aeneas): love dashed by need to found Rome

There's smash aplenty in Charles Willeford's High Priest of California (29th Street Rep), the only one of the pulpmeister's 16 novels that he cared to adapt into a play. When slickster salesman Russell Haxby picks up adenoidal Alyce Victor in a San Francisco dance hall, he becomes enmeshed in her complicated domestic arrangements—or doesn't every apartment come equipped with floozy cousin and ex-middleweight husband? As the principal pair, both David Mogentale and Carol Sirugo give oddly calibrated performances, naturalistic and stylized by turns. It's unclear just what sort of world they inhabit, but at least it's the same one, and their unnerving affair connects its punches. Besides, if you like charades, Sirugo does a knockout impression of a California redwood every time Mogentale goes to kiss her.

A few hundred miles south of California, a whiskey priest dodges state-sponsored persecution in Dennis Cannan and Pierre Bost's adaptation of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (the Storm Theatre). During the 1920s and '30s, the Mexican government attempted to eradicate the Catholic church. The last priest in the Tabasco region (Timothy Roselle) tries to survive long enough to get across the border and say a few masses along the way. A drinker and fornicator, he's no man-of-the-cloth poster boy, and his visits to villages usually result in the execution of a few peasants. In other words, the play's a typical Greene mélange of overseas landscapes and seedy morality. Unfortunately, the adaptation's rather dreadful; shrill and reductive, it intercuts each major scene with a wordless one of quotidian oppression. First-time director Stephen Logan Day treats his actors generously, but never establishes a sense of place or urgency. However, he and set designer Martin T. Lopez should be congratulated for tracking down an antiquated dentist's chair—easily the niftiest prop of the week.

The folding chairs in Looking Glass Theatre's Mrs. Warren's Profession aren't nearly so swell, nor are the bottoms occupying them much more well-rounded, but it's nevertheless a rather comfortable production. Sure, the incidental music and set painting are unnecessarily precious, but director Julie Fei-Fan Balzer makes an admirable attempt at turning Shaw's disquisitions dramatic. When straitlaced Vivie comes down from university, she is appalled to learn her mother's profession is the oldest. It's unfortunate that Shaw's women tend to fall into two categories: highly sexed and mindless, or sexless and intelligent. But Balzer and actor Stephanie Janssen treat the priggish Vivie with some compassion. If only Balzer could have evened the odds a bit and stopped the striking Anne Newhall, as mum Warren, from going quite so screechy. After all, running all those scarlet houses in Ostend, Vienna, and Budapest must have endowed her with some cosmopolitan savoir faire. Ah well, she may be ill-mannered and amoral, but at least she gets to travel.

 
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