Griffin Theatre


Underground Theatre Conspiracy

at Stage Left Theatre

One of the ways in which theater has been influenced by television in recent years is that a small-space imagination has sometimes been imposed on a large-space medium. Television’s restricted field of vision means that no more than two, or at most three, people can be seen at one time–so when a crowd scene is required, the camera shows first one small group of people, then another, giving the overall impression of many. Of course, on a theater stage, one can have several people performing simultaneously, and our attention is focused on one or another by the volume of a voice, the expansiveness of the gestures, or both. Too many young video-bred playwrights forget this, however, and insist on limiting onstage activity to one, two, or three characters performing a single action, everything else either occurring offstage or frozen in blackout.

Which is why it was such a joy, 30 minutes or so into Griffin Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, to realize that two characters were having a conversation on one side of the stage, more people were having another conversation on the other, and elsewhere on the set, another person was speaking out loud into a telephone. This does not present the audibility problems one might anticipate–we hear snippets of all the talk, just as we would in an actual roomful of people. By the end of the first act, the stage is filled with no less than nine people, all doing things and talking simultaneously. That’s something that can only be done in live theater.

Unfortunately, many of the performers in Griffin’s production continue to play at this level for the rest of the evening. Wilson’s often-revived look at America in the days just before Watergate epitomizes the country’s decline in the decline of the once-grand Hotel Baltimore and the railroads on which it depended. Hot L Baltimore is populated with an assortment of end-of-the-line eccentrics and drifters with dreams: a feisty old man who does voice exercises in his room, a nymphet call girl in love with railroads, a hippie-hoodlum homesteader and her henpecked brother, an elderly southern clairvoyant, a hooker with a heart of mush and another with a heart of brass, a young student in search of his grandfather, and presiding over this motley microcosm, a time-hardened manager and a fatherly night clerk. All are the kind of nice, chewy roles actors dream about, but director Richard Barletta seems more interested in these characters’ wackiness than in their souls. Because of the Marx Brothers manner, few make the emotional connections necessary to fix these personalities in our minds. This could have been opening-night adrenaline. Once these actors settle into their characters, the ratio of warmth to dazzle may improve.

This is not to say that the dazzle is not entertaining. As the teenage hooker who makes house calls, Becky Thyre is all energy, ricocheting around the spacious set like a hyperthyroid Super Ball. Mara Casey’s dance in pasties and G-string on the hotel desk also deserves mention as a demonstration of–uh, kinetic energy. The award for vocal power should be divided between Elizabeth Shivers as April, whose every line resounds like the pealing of a church bell, and Jill M. Burrichter as the would-be pioneer Jackie, who bellows her speeches in an almost unintelligible Jersey-ish accent. Contrasted with all this thunder are understated performances by G. Scott Thomas as the desk clerk, Bill, and Maryl Falen-Olsen as Millie, a lady from Louisiana (though the latter’s understatement sometimes teeters dangerously on the brink of narcolepsy).

The energy-efficiency prizes, however, go to the Laurel and Hardy team of George Lugg and Kevin Farrell, as the curmudgeonly Mr. Morse and the childlike Jamie. Both play their roles with so much concentration and economy–watch the oh-so-leisurely escalation of a checker game into a hand-to-hand tussle–that their characters remain memorable long after the others have faded. Jim Cantafio as the gruff hotel manager, Mr. Katz, Lisa Collins as his priggish assistant, Mrs. Oxenham, and Patrick Hatton as Paul Granger III seem still unacquainted with their characters, but deliver solid and workmanlike performances nonetheless–unlike Jean Elliot Campbell, whose doting Mrs. Bellotti is caricature from beginning to end.

Scenic designer Becky Flory and costume designer Kimberly Muller have infused the mise-en-scene with just the right shabby grandeur, and sound designer John Baker’s carefully selected music reflects not only the play’s period but its changing moods.

“Nobody’s got the conviction to act on their passions,” declares the teenage call girl. Griffin’s production has a tendency to act too much on its passions and not enough on its convictions.

Optimism is a little harder to find in Underground Theatre Conspiracy’s latest work, Space . . . An Exploration of What’s Between Us. As recently as last fall, UTC was billing itself as a comedy troupe. Space, however, represents a move away from the yocks toward an examination of human relationships in this confusing modern world.

This examination can get pretty heavy, too. In one sketch, “The More Things Change,” Romeo and Juliet consider the possibility of eloping straightaway after the balcony scene and preventing the tragedy and bloodshed they know will follow. After debating their alternatives, they sorrowfully conclude that there is no solution but to go on. “You’ve got to stay and face the pain without getting angry and killing,” Juliet declares. “That’s how he wrote it, and until we have the strength to make up a better story, all we can do is try to see the beauty in the suffering . . . See you in act three.” Other sketches concern the efforts of two grown sons to communicate with their elderly father, a Kansas farmer’s displacement by a dog-food factory, and a young boxer’s loss of ambition.

This doesn’t mean that Space is totally humorless. The tale of how a young astronomer finds his love by sighting her in an airliner window (“I’ve never run all the way to the airport for any other girl”) features Tim Joyce in another of his tense personae on the border of hysteria. And Paula Godsey’s cooch dancer recounting the ups and downs of the beauty pageant trail provides many wry laughs: “Men who are lousy lovers always want to sleep with Miss Congeniality . . . she has proven that she can be gracious in the face of disappointment.” The cyclotron-snafu sketch from last summer’s Batman Died for Our Sins is here (made more poignant for being just a second or two longer), as is the dating service for neurotics from last fall’s Kiku’s Komedy Workout and the still thoroughly charming fiftieth-anniversary sketch.

Space opens and closes in a magazine stand, and it’s loosely structured around the idea that the sketches might have come from magazines. As the opening song proclaims, “I learned that life is not a book–no, Life’s a magazine . . . Nothing really changes except the names and dates.” Space, though not perfect, signals a fascinating change in the subject matter and style of presentation of this always intelligent and innovative troupe of actor-writers.