Diamondback Theater

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

Under the clever title “Sex, Food & Poetry” Diamondback Theater has gathered two very different one-acts, one essentially about sex, the other more or less about food, both directed by Andrew Chudzinski, and both starring Mick Thomasson and Elizabeth Steele.

The first play, Don Rifkin’s A Brief Period of Time, is a tired little naturalist comedy set in a rural town in 1987, about a long-separated pair of high school lovers–Billy and Cindy–reunited after the death of Cindy’s husband. In three rather long scenes we see these two very, very slowly come to grips with a sexual betrayal that disrupted their young love 11 years before. Unfortunately, by the time they’re ready to forgive and forget they’ve long overstayed their welcome.

Part of the problem is that Rifkin’s characters spend so much time dwelling on the past we get very little sense of what their present lives are like, beyond the sort of superficial details you might read on a job application–Billy is an “assistant to the assistant manager” of a sporting-goods store, Cindy once worked for an escort agency but is now an independently wealthy widow.

It doesn’t help that Thomasson and Steele don’t do a very good job of mining whatever realistic detail Rifkin buried in his play and that they don’t make a very convincing pair of ex-lovers. They don’t seem like people who have endured 11 years of sorrow and loneliness, and Steele certainly doesn’t seem like a new widow.

To make matters worse, the few sweet, quiet moments in the play are shattered by the cast’s too loud, too broad, community-theater acting style and by the even louder pool game going on in the next room. And the most poignant moment of the play, when Billy finally explains to Cindy why he boffed another woman way back in 1976, is ruined when Thomasson delivers the playwright’s ham-fisted line–“I did what I did ’cause I loved you”–so gracelessly that we like him even less than before.

The second play on the bill, Norman Rhodes’s Something to Eat, is a considerably less ambitious work, though it’s also more successful. Little more than an extended comedy sketch, it concerns a couple who cannot decide which restaurant to go to. They list every trendy restaurant in Chicago, and a few that aren’t, and one by one shoot them down. This is marvelously funny for about ten minutes, but then the put-downs become wearisome. Moreover, Rhodes never gets around to wading into the deeper waters of this couple’s relationship. Why, I kept asking myself, are they still together if they can’t even decide on a place to eat?

Happily, Thomasson and Steele seem far more comfortable as a pair of contemporary Chicagoans and prove quite adept at bringing these characters to life. Even after Rhodes completely runs out of gas these two win laughs with the graceless way they drape their bodies over the couch as they talk and hopelessly tear through the Sunday paper looking for ideas.

Ironically, the most entertaining moments of the evening occur between the two one-acts, when Katie Dawson and Daniel Harray perform a quick montage of poems and comedy bits. These two perform their short “Interlude” with all the joy and energy missing from the two one-acts; they both have strong stage presences and clearly enjoy performing together.

It helps that much of their material–a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a poem by Emily Dickinson and another by Yeats–is far better than anything Rifkin or Rhodes musters. Even when Dawson and Harray’s routine turns parodic, as when they begin reading Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as if it were great poetry, their performance has a winning spunk and fire about it. Without this wonderful entr’acte the evening would have been a dreary desert.