MY SIMPLE CITY, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Powertap Productions, at Strawdog Theatre. Like so many contemporary American scripts, Richard Strand’s new one-act looks and sounds very much like a play. But with its point-and-click structure–all highlights and no development–it’s no more a play than a novelization is a novel. In this biographical sampler Strand attempts to chronicle the troubled life of his paternal grandmother Alfhilde, condemned to a mental institution after being declared an unfit mother and losing custody of her four children. But rather than create characters, Strand creates dramatic functions–doctors, schoolmarms, and unidentified officials with little stake in the action beyond making Alfhilde seem pitiable. Even Alfhilde seems more an empathy machine than a human being, as Strand gives her little to do but miss her kids and wrinkle her brow.

Rather than present his characters with meaningful choices, Strand strings together scenic effects (not scenes) with an eye toward unambiguous sentiment. When Alfhilde learns that one of her daughters has died, the daughter walks in and stands center stage while Alfhilde simply stares at her, a gesture designed to tug the heartstrings, not move the story forward. Like so many new plays, My Simple City is a scramble of hyperdemonstrative vignettes; at every moment it’s abundantly clear how the audience is supposed to feel. Despite intelligent performances, this is Theater for Dummies.

–Justin Hayford