Phoenix Theatre

at the Theatre Building



Raven Theatre

Steve Tesich is best known for Breaking Away, a sweet, heartwarming film; his screenplay won an Academy Award in 1979. Since then he’s earned most of his money writing films or adaptations for films, including The World According to Garp, American Flyers, Eyewitness, Eleni, and Four Friends.

Yet Tesich considers himself primarily a playwright, and everything he writes for the stage is infinitely more challenging, passionate, and original than the straightforward narratives he supplies for the screen. His characters tend to be quirky and eccentric. There’s a Polish black woman in Division Street, for example. Much of his dialogue is wildly surprising, and he’s a master of the weird monologue. It’s obvious that Tesich pours his greatest creativity into his plays, and he seems to be addressing this situation in Square One, the beguiling comic tragedy being staged at the Theatre Building by the Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis.

Set in the “near future,” during the reconstruction phase of a great social upheaval, Square One is about a man named Adam who is a “state artist, third class, with a specialty in singing.” Adam performs on the “Patriotic Variety Hour,” a TV show that makes the elderly survivors of the upheaval scream in horror. His greatest aspiration is to be promoted to state artist, second class.

In the course of the play Adam meets and marries Dianne, a young woman who is his opposite in every way; the differences between them seem to reflect the dichotomy in Tesich’s own life.

Adam is like Tesich the screenwriter–an artist whose work is sanctioned by the establishment and promotes conformity and banality. Tesich the playwright is more like Dianne–spontaneous, quirky, passionate, and humane. She is the one racked with anxiety while her husband remains smug and supremely confident. She is the one who weeps when their baby is sick, while Adam encourages her to accept what they cannot change. Like Dianne, Tesich the playwright frets about moral questions–in Speed of Darkness he seems to be weeping for the sickness brought on by Vietnam, a topic Tesich the screenwriter would touch only in the most superficial way. Adam is supremely rational, just like Tesich the screenwriter, who creates linear narratives with realistic dialogue. Dianne is ditzy and often discombobulated. She cannot wed the thinker and the talker within herself, she says, so she often blurts out her feelings in bewildering pronouncements. “You don’t want to have a nosebleed around a bunch of sharks,” she says, apropos of nothing.

In Square One, Dianne has been marginalized by the new political order. She is too odd and sincere to fit in with those who admire her husband’s performances. Similarly, Tesich the playwright has been marginalized by the mainstream entertainment machine. His plays are too odd and sincere to provide the mindless entertainment people crave, so he writes screenplays too. Then he retreats to his house in Colorado (paid for by Hollywood) to write plays.

Tesich set Square One in the future, but that wasn’t necessary. He could have achieved almost the same result by making Adam a Hollywood screenwriter. But Tesich grew up under Yugoslavia’s postwar totalitarian regime, where he undoubtedly learned that a smart man never bites the hand that feeds him.

The Phoenix Theatre’s production, directed by Bryan Fonseca, benefits enormously from sublime performances by Chuck Goad and Diane Kondrat. Goad portrays Adam as bland and affable–and barely aware of his own narcissism. “No matter what happens in our marriage,” he tells Dianne at the outset, “I can promise you right now it will never be my fault.” Kondrat plays Dianne as a dithering, wide-eyed eccentric vainly trying to cope with her confusion and anxiety. Together these two actors demonstrate brilliant comic timing but never trivialize Tesich’s disturbing subject matter.

Like Square One, the two “shorties” being staged by the Raven Theatre deal with male-female relationships. The first, Blind Date, is a sweet would-be comedy similar to something Tesich the screenwriter might produce, and the second, Ariel Bright, strives to be weird and surprising, something like the work of Tesich the playwright but without the same wit and intelligence.

Horton Foote’s Blind Date is about a teenage girl (Jodi Kanter) who is forced to receive a visit from an awkward neighborhood boy (Mark Yoder) who tries to impress her by reciting the books of the Bible. Sarah Nancy sneaks off to her room while he is performing this amazing feat, and the boy leaves. But when he returns to get his hat he bumps into her and–surprise!–they start to warm up to each other.

Katharine Long’s Ariel Bright begins with the title character emerging from a coffin in the workroom of a funeral home, startling the mortician, Hiley Bedsal (Barry Saltzman), who’s performing a card trick for the corpse he’s working on. A more bizarre beginning would be hard to imagine, but the play quickly degenerates into a humdrum conversation in which Ariel, played not very brightly by Samantha Bennett, reveals her secret desire to be an actress. (Her real name is Enid Sneed, but the funeral director seems to know everything about everybody, including Enid’s ethereal stage name.)

These two one-acts, directed by Dan Ruben, are short indeed, less than 30 minutes each. And that’s their only virtue.