North Avenue Productions and Prairie del’Arte Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building


Theatre Shoppe

Sometimes one-act plays, like wonderful short stories, can provide an incredible amount of depth and insight in a short time. Other times you get the feeling that a play is short because the author really didn’t have much to say. The three one-acts in North Avenue Productions and Prairie del’Arte’s collaborative effort “Coping With Life” seem to fall into the latter category.

“Coping With Life” is a pretty handy rubric for any play. Leaving that fact aside, however, as well as the glaring fact that whoever wrote the program needs an elementary lesson in Italian, one is faced with the realization that sometimes three plays don’t add up to even one good one.

The all-over-the-map trio begins with Christopher Durang’s Naomi in the Living Room, a three-character absurdist journey into the living room of a batty, foulmouthed woman named Naomi who is paid a visit by her son and daughter-in-law. Durang once wrote a play called The Actor’s Nightmare; this show is essentially “A Daughter-in-Law’s Nightmare”: Naomi jumps from mood to mood, smiling sweetly before launching into a vitriolic verbal assault on her guests.

Naomi plays with sexual roles and pokes fun at middle-class American mores, but the play is neither pithy nor amusing. Much of the humor depends on naughty words and actions popping up in places where we least expect them. And in this production the play’s humor is seriously diminished by Marti Hale’s characterization of Naomi, who is played as a bewigged kook straight off the set of The Carol Burnett Show.

Things get a little better in Ethan Phillips’s slight drama Penguin Blues, which links two unlikely characters in an alcohol-rehabilitation center. Gordon, an acid-tongued radio announcer who does voice-overs, enters the room of Angelita, a nun who claims she just likes the taste of beer. Ostensibly he wants to discuss the process of drying out. But as the conversation proceeds we learn that Gordon has a different agenda: he wants to come to terms with the violent discipline of his Catholic upbringing, which is probably partly to blame for his drinking problem.

Kurt Kurowski’s and Sandra Storrer’s rich performances provide some genuinely touching moments. We see how these two people have chosen very different roads and yet both have wound up frustrated and alcoholic. But the situation itself has a certain underlying phoniness: their meeting seems forced, and the final cathartic embrace between nun and radio announcer does not ring true. At times the character of Angelita seems less a human being than an Everynun upon whom Gordon can vent his frustrations.

After an overlong intermission, which features at least one too many cute telephone songs (e.g. Blondie’s “Call Me” and “Hangin’ on the Telephone”), we enter the world of phone sex and stagnant relationships in Theresa Rebeck’s Does This Woman Have a Name? Mel is a writer who hasn’t been able to make a dime off her work, so her friend Sarah suggests they enter the raunchy world of 900 numbers. Sarah will do all the talking if Mel will use her writing talents to tap out juicy scripts. Needless to say, Mel’s boyfriend Jon is appalled by her new profession and offers to give her whatever money she needs. After all, he’s a fancy lawyer and she’s a starving artist.

The play addresses Mel’s dilemma: she must strive to declare her independence, yet neither of the situations open to her offers it. The play addresses some compelling issues, such as men’s need to dominate their partners and the debasement and dehumanization of women in fields like phone sex. Deborah Staples also has some excellent scenes as Sarah, the friend who is alternately disgusted and amused by the men she encounters over the phone. And in one downright chilling section Mel must endure the harassment of a sadistic caller.

But the play seems incomplete. Scenes end abruptly and segue choppily into others. The characters also seem rather flat, especially Mel and Jon: though they’re supposedly lovers, they don’t seem to have a thing in common or any understanding or compassion for each other. Maybe that’s supposed to be a comment on 90s relationships, but to me it seems like underdevelopment. The dialogue and plot progression also have a kind of television rhythm that detracts from the seriousness of the issues the play addresses.

There are common threads in the three plays that make up “Coping With Life.” The characters in each express dissatisfaction with their lives, and each has motifs of failed relationships and dysfunctional families. But what really links these one-acts is their banality.

I’ve never read the New Testament all the way through; I guess I just don’t like sequels. But anyone looking for a primer on the subject might venture into the Theatre Shoppe, where The Gathering, by Josephine, Rolf, and Eric Forsberg, has become a seasonal offering.

The Gathering is a fictionalized retelling of about the last 50 minutes of the Last Supper, performed in modern dress and modern speech. The apostles toast each other, toast Jesus, and discuss what will happen when their teacher leaves them. It’s less a play than 12 interconnected monologues; each of the apostles tells how he met Jesus and reveals some of the miracles that Jesus performed: walking on water, feeding thousands with only enough food for a few, and turning water into wine. The apostles joke, laugh, and playfully insult each other until Judas leaves, telling the assembled that there’s something he must do.

Although The Gathering is reminiscent of the kind of theater seen in Sunday school celebrations, it is mercifully short and devoid of preaching. As theater, it could do with some variation in the styles of characters’ speeches and some development of characters’ relationships. But as religious lesson it is certainly adequate.