Ironwood Theatre

at Stage Left Theatre

The Actor’s Nightmare is the lesser celebrated of two one-acts by Christopher Durang that were conceived, and are most often performed, as companion pieces. (The other, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, won an Obie Award.) Still, it’s a good play, well written, very funny, more than a flip-side drama filling out an evening’s bill.

The play is a nightmare, George Spelvin’s nightmare. Now, whether or not he’s an actor, as the title suggests, George believes he’s an accountant. He enters, confused to find himself in a theater and surprised to learn that he’s expected to go onstage in Edwin Booth’s place, since “Eddie” has broken both legs in a car wreck. George doesn’t know what play he’s to be in, or what his lines are, but he feels compelled to go on, especially when the other actors (Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving) tell him to quit fooling around and get into costume. And he does, only to find himself dressed as Hamlet but appearing in the role of Elyot in Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

George stumbles through the unfamiliar role, encountering one frustration after another, hearing time and again cue lines for which he knows no response. And, with the peculiar logic of nightmares, the play itself keeps changing, from Private Lives to Hamlet to something like Endgame to something even less like A Man for All Seasons. Through it all, George tries to live up to everyone else’s expectations, even when he doesn’t know what those expectations are.

Durang captures all those messy feelings in nightmares — anxiety, disorientation, helplessness — and not just a few of the motifs — unquestioned assumptions, confession, punishment, and exposure. And yet it’s funny. The audience can sit outside the nightmare, laugh, and, given the chance, learn something about their own fears. I say “given the chance” because it all depends on the production.

The Ironwood production doesn’t realize the potential in this script. Adam Goldman (as George) gives no sense of urgency to his performance. He responds to the nightmare almost as if he were out on a casual lark. Indeed Goldman, too, seems more like an accountant than an actor, and that’s no tribute to his command of this role. So, when it comes time for George, as Sir Thomas More, to face the executioner’s ax, there’s no revelation that the nightmare has gone so far as to overtake reality, and the cumulative impact of the play is ultimately sacrificed.

Two performances from the supporting cast are quite good. Eamon Hunt cuts a dashing Horatio, suavely overplayed, as if Henry Irving were stuck in a minor role and milking it for all it was worth. Melissa McFarlane gives an equally ludicrous and definitive parody of Nell in Endgame, although her part is actually all of Beckett’s characters rolled into one and planted in a trash can. If Goldman, and ultimately the director, Ed Townley, had grasped that stilted and nightmarish quality evident in Hunt’s and McFarlane’s performances, this baby would have gotten off the ground. But, as it is, it’s more a case of the script carrying the production than the production carrying the script.

The Fairy Garden, by Harry Kondoleon, is the second play on the evening’s bill. Aside from the detail that both plays feature a decapitation, there’s no obvious reason they should share a bill except, of course, that the evening would be unconventionally short if only one or the other were performed alone. Anyway, it’s a good choice. The Fairy Garden is an engaging if somewhat scattered play. I’ve never seen it played before, but again, I’d prefer to see it directed instead of just thrown together.

The story primarily concerns three people (a male gay couple and a bored, rich woman) who aren’t getting what they want out of life. Their ennui inexplicably reaches a crisis when the woman, Dagny (played by Melissa McFarlane), goes to fill an ice bucket, but instead decapitates her husband and returns with his head in said bucket. Then, even more preposterous, a fairy (Mary Ruth Clarke) appears and grants one wish apiece in exchange for some diamond earbobs and a diamond tooth filling. Okay. Now the problem is how these three people decide to resolve their marginal and parasitic lives into something approaching happiness.

They can’t make up their minds, or else they have no minds to make up, so the fairy goes ahead and acts upon her own well-intentioned hunches. The husband, Boris, is put back together. That solves that. Then Dagny and Mimi (one half of the gay couple) run off with each other for no better reason than that fairies like to pair people up. That leaves Roman, the moodier and more intellectual of the two men. The fairy arranges for a male stripper to be thrown into his lap, but Roman simply isn’t interested. He tells the fairy that he wants a life with all the rotten parts somehow surgically removed. The fulfillment of that wish constitutes the weird conclusion to the play. If director Ed Townley had had some idea of what he was doing here, I might have made some sense of it all. Right now, your guess is as good as mine. My guess is that Roman gets what he wants, whatever that is.

Eamon Hunt plays Roman, and unlike the other characters, which function without rhyme or reason, he comes off startlingly real. Hunt plays Roman’s self-pity, self-consciousness, and general self-absorption with precision and depth. He emerges as a histrionic person, the sort that manufactures pride and emotion to flesh out a life that doesn’t really have them, or even merit them — a character who’s intensely narcissistic but who knows very little about himself.

The play also features a wonderful comic routine in a male stripper act. Peter Cieply dances without music — explaining and analyzing as he goes along — a number that involves the sexually suggestive repair of a disabled auto. The auto, like the music, is left up to the imagination, and there may be some meaning here, but at the time that didn’t seem as important as the absolute silliness of the dance itself.

Well, as you can gather, this double bill is a take what you can get proposition. Bits and pieces. If there’s a moral to be had here, it’s that a play needs a director. A play is like a wish or a decision. Someone has to make it, and if the director doesn’t, that fairy will roll around when the curtain goes up, and what you get may not be exactly what you wanted.