Demon Life Productions

at Angel Island

Ever since Samuel Beckett proved in Waiting for Godot that you could take dialogue modeled on the patter of music-hall comics and use it to create a play far darker and more disturbing than any comedy had a right to be, it has seemed quite natural for serious playwrights to craft works that change tone from the strictly comic to the serious without warning or provocation.

In the right hands, say Harold Pinter’s or David Mamet’s, this rhetorical device can be quite effective. Anyone who has seen Pinter’s The Birthday Party knows how much unstated but still felt tragedy lies beneath the “comic” dialogue. However, in less certain hands this switching from a comic to a more serious tone seems less a conscious choice than a halfhearted attempt to obscure the inconsistencies of the work. Such is the case, I suspect, with Andy Roski’s Sway, which changes tone every time the scene changes.

Set in present-day America, the play begins as a domestic comedy–complete with an absolutely killing bit in which the play’s protagonist, Eddie, and his girlfriend, Pam, are having one of those infuriating Pinteresque conversations that go round and round with neither party ever quite understanding why the other can’t understand what it’s saying. Soon we learn that Pam is having an affair with Eddie’s brother, and it looks as if Sway might turn into a contemporary version of a French sex farce.

Before the farce has a chance to develop, however, a character named Harry is introduced and reveals himself in a seething monologue to be far too angry and dangerous to be a character in a comedy. We don’t learn just how dangerous he is until the last half of the play, when he drives straight from LA to Chicago to shoot Eddie. Harry looks and acts like an escapee from an action-adventure film, one of those psychotic killers who bedevil the hero until being killed at the end of a climactic chase scene.

One scene later the tone of the play changes again, this time to touching naturalism. Here we meet the protagonist’s depressed mother and his senile grandmother, whose circular conversations about what the grandmother does and does not remember are some of the most moving in the play.

In the next scene, where the two brothers stand outside talking, the tone changes again. And so it goes, from comedy to farce to realism to melodrama. In the process the plot is fractured into a series of disconnected scenes that would never in a thousand years fit together into a completely coherent and compelling story.

As it stands now, the play seems more like several very different plays pasted together. One’s a sex farce about Pam, Eddie, and Eddie’s brother; one’s a serious, Marsha Normanesque play about a middle-aged daughter and her increasingly senile mother; and one’s about an LA crazy who blames a poor schmuck in Chicago for the death of his wife.

Sadly, nothing in Diane Honeyman’s craftsmanlike direction or in the six-member cast’s competent though hardly inspired interpretation of Roski’s characters adds any unity to the play. (It doesn’t help that only Roski, as Eddie, and Dorothy Bernard, as the grandmother, seem fully committed to bringing their characters to life.)

All of which is a shame, because Roski is clearly a playwright of considerable promise (Sway is his first play). He clearly feels at home in half a dozen different styles, and he certainly knows how to create interesting, believable, unstereotypical, and easily differentiated characters. However, until he gains a little more control of his medium, his wonderful characters will continue to be lost in his crazy-quilt world.