Bailiwick Repertory

The surgeon, like the playwright, must practice on someone, and the teaching hospital that provides willing patients is performing a laudable service.

But would you want to be one of those patients?

Bailiwick Repertory deserves some credit for providing Chuck Ferrero, a young, inexperienced playwright, with a place to practice his craft. With time, Ferrero might become a competent playwright.

But believe me, you don’t want this rookie practicing his craft on you now. Ferrero’s play Blackheart is a monument to pretension, incoherence, and ineptitude. Aspiring to be a sprawling epic about hypocrisy and evil, it is in actuality a juvenile fantasy constructed out of fragments collected from popular films and TV shows. In fact, Ferrero borrows so voraciously that Blackheart is just a few short steps from being a spoof of the trashy melodrama Americans love. But satire requires a sense of humor, and Ferrero obviously takes himself very, very seriously.

Blackheart is about Susan Wells, a young reporter for the New York Times and the daughter of a famous journalist recently killed by a land mine in the Golan Heights. She is lured into television by Bill, a brash young executive who plans to move his network out of last place in the ratings by introducing “killer news,” whatever that is. Bill promises Susan her own newsmagazine, Insight Out, and for one of her first stories she decides to cover the civil war in a small Central American country.

The sensibility that permeates Blackheart is so adolescent that if you can remember how it felt to be a know-nothing high school sophomore, you can write the rest of the show.

You’d certainly want to bring in the CIA, because the evil CIA is always trying to overthrow governments, right? And you’d have a CIA operative use a blowgun to inject a woman with a knockout drug. You’d want a ruthless madman working for the CIA, providing the weapons needed to keep the war going, and you’d probably create a smart-mouthed, cynical American who drinks to forget what he knows about evil and hypocrisy. You’d portray Bill, the TV executive, as a caricature of a pompous teacher, and if you wanted to get fancy, you might throw in a dream sequence in which Susan’s father sings and dances for his little girl.

Ferrero has included all this and more, making Blackheart a vivid example of what happens to the human mind when it’s been exposed to too much television and too few books. The plot in itself shows the author’s limited knowledge and stunted imagination. And the dialogue suggests that Ferrero’s ability to communicate has been impaired as well. “Why do you stay here?” Susan asks a U.S. doctor who, works in the war-torn country. “You ask hard questions,” the doctor replies. “That’s my job,” Susan intones.

Ferrero can’t even keep his cliches straight. “I’m going to blast this story out of the water!” Susan exclaims, when what she means is that her story is going to blast a corrupt drug company out of the water. And the mad gunrunner announces that “peace on earth is humanly impossible.” Maybe it’s inhumanly possible?

With dialogue like that, it’s hard to judge the performances–the actors are going to sound ridiculous no matter how well they deliver their lines. Christopher Cartmill actually manages to create a personality for Rick McFarlane, the alcoholic American photographer wasting away in a dingy Central American hotel. Kevin Read wrings a little comedy out of Skunk, the dim-witted soldier of fortune who works for the insane CIA operative. Nancy Lollar brings some dignity to Dr. Rosa Hernandez despite the insipid dialogue she must deliver. And Emily Hooper actually manages, most of the time, to prevent Susan Wells from becoming a comic-book character. Although director David Zak stages the play with zest and intelligence, one can’t help but note that as Bailiwick’s artistic director, he is primarily responsible for selecting the plays. Didn’t he read this one first?

Skunk, abandoned by his parents in infancy, was raised in an orphanage where he spent most of his time watching TV. He believes, for example, that Starsky and Hutch are real detectives he can hire to find his parents. Skunk is Ferrero’s idea of a joke, of course, but the joke backfires–Skunk could also serve as the author’s surrogate. Maybe Ferrero will be competent someday. But for now, don’t put yourself under his knife.