Theatre M and Diamondback Theater

at Stage Left Theatre

One can draw many facile comparisons between Quincy Long’s The Johnstown Vindicator and David Mamet’s Squirrels, which are playing together at Stage Left under the heading “Double Feature.” Squirrels is a dissection of uninspired writing, while The Johnstown Vindicator is an example of it. Both lampoon the role of the writer in society. But the thing that really links them is that they’re both well-acted and -directed productions that miss because the material isn’t quite up to the level of the performance.

The Johnstown Vindicator is an amusing, loopy romp that substitutes quirkiness for coherence in its effort to be a sort of The Front Page for the 90s. It takes place in the offices of the Johnstown Vindicator, a familiar place filled with eager rookies, fast-talking, no-nonsense news hounds, and whiskey-swilling cynics.

The convoluted plot is both homage to and parody of those noirish newspaper dramas of the 30s and 40s. It revolves around a tough, unscrupulous newsman named Jack, who rules the roost at the paper but is the oedipal pawn of his disturbed mother at home. She has great influence in the town’s underworld and desperately wants Jack to bring home his ex-flame Janet, a competent newswoman, so she can watch them in bed together. Jack is trying to bust open a murder story by pinning it on the town’s mob-connected Tucci family, but finds himself in a vortex of self-discovery as he learns that his mother, Janet, and even he may somehow be involved in the crime–and that the dead man might have been his father.

The play is filled with offbeat characters who drive the plot this way and that toward its predictably bizarre conclusion. Along the way we meet J.J., a young obit writer who longs for a crack at a juicy story, and his girlfriend Pepper, who winds up with an advice-for-the-lovelorn column. Then there’s the son of the murdered man, Carl, who runs a porno bookstore and is willing to confess to any crime anybody accuses him of. Toss in the alcoholic newsman Hump, the by-the-books editor Howard, and the venomous stock Mafia don Tucci and you have a pretty good recipe for a screwball comedy.

The problem is that the weird, twisting plot seems to run right over the characters Long created. They’re far more interesting than the plot, yet Long burdens us with improbable revelations and unexpected occurrences. He may be parodying a genre, but the plot still has to make sense. And though it’s amusing and quirky, it never does.

Director Mark Truitt keeps the pace flying, and all nine members of Theatre M’s cast do a bang-up job. Molly Reynolds as Janet and Anthony Cannata as Howard are especially fine. Unfortunately, they’re all trapped in the prison of plot technique and authorial tricks.

Squirrels could have used a little bit more plot to justify its 75 minutes. The play’s depiction of two writers hopelessly mired in cliche and the cleaning woman who acts as a sort of muse in their lives is often hilarious and insightful. But it wears you down and leaves you wanting a copy of the play and a pair of scissors.

The two industrious writers are Arthur, an old pro, and his new apprentice Edmond. Arthur spends days dictating to Edmond beginnings of stories that somehow always end up being the same story about a man on a park bench strangling a squirrel, while the naive Edmond grasps for important life lessons in the tale. After a while the two switch places, and Edmond dictates stories to Arthur that are not about squirrels but that are equally empty. From time to time the cleaning woman enters to comment on the sorry state of these two clowns and to spin the beginnings of some of her own stories, which seem a little bit deeper. Perhaps that’s because she’s trying to tell a story, while Edmond and Arthur are seeking profundity but have no stories to tell.

The play has some great lines and some good parody. Perhaps there’s a bit of self-parody as well; Arthur’s interest in squirrels recalls a certain Chicago writer’s fascination with ducks. But the play gets repetitive–it’s so static it could last 15 minutes or 15 days.

The performances are good, if a bit overdone–excusable given the material. Kristy Munden does great work with the role of the cleaning woman, creating the most real, sympathetic female character I have ever seen in a Mamet play. And Matt Diehl’s Groucho Marx-like Arthur gets a lot of well-deserved laughs.