Element Theatre Company

at the Chicago Actors Project

William Mastrosimone, more widely known for his play Extremities, takes a lighter look at boys and girls together in The Woolgatherer. But this time seduction, not rape, is the dramatic premise. There are two characters, Rose and Cliff. Rose is a reclusive dime store candy counter clerk. She lives in a depressing, one-room efficiency in South Philadelphia, where she fills in her empty life with fantasy–and loses touch with reality. One day she brings home Cliff, a truck driver with a six-pack and some time to kill. Cliff is a rough-and-ready sort of guy with a quick sarcastic wit that he uses to fend off situations he’d rather not deal with. Rose soon presents one of those situations, and the confrontation becomes a grinding stone, wearing down Rose’s naivete and Cliff’s cynicism, until these two proletarian lovebirds can come together.

It sounds like a lowlife subplot to a soap opera. But what distinguishes The Woolgatherer is Mastrosimone’s often lyrical use of language, a truckload of one-liners, and the notion that there’s more (but apparently not much more) to love than a natural attraction of opposites. In the strictly theatrical sense, this play differs from the daytime soaps in that it’s 100 percent an actor’s vehicle. That is, the roles of Rose and Cliff extend to actors the spectrum of opportunity to laugh, cry, get tough, get vulnerable, and filibuster their way through some juicy monologues.

So it comes down to this: The Woolgatherer is as good as the two actors and the director working on it. The play is pleasant, funny, and slightly intriguing, but it won’t carry itself. It’ll become either romantic or sappy, depending on performance. And it’s a measure of the talent and interpretation that’s brought to bear upon The Woolgatherer that this production leans toward the sappy.

James Finnerty (as Cliff) certainly resembles an actor more than a truck driver. Perhaps he can’t help that, but he could stand to act more like a truck driver. His affected New Jersey accent and smooth demeanor hold his character at arm’s length. When he’s “on” he tends to be histrionic, and the impression he creates is very different from that of a truck driver showing off. Finnerty’s character is far more credible when he’s dramatically suspended, particularly during Rose’s big scenes. One outstanding moment comes when, late in the first act, Rose tells a sob story about her (probably fictitious) friend Brenda–about how Brenda almost froze to death in the snow outside some guy’s apartment. Cliff’s response–“Don’t make me barf”–follows his impatient, fidgety hearing of the ridiculous story. Now this is more on the mark, most likely because Finnerty is reacting rather than acting at this point. It’s interesting that the chemistry between the two actors suddenly jells at this very moment, when all the earlier barrages of dialogue and repartee fail to bring this about.

Unlike Finnerty, Victoria Wallace (as Rose) doesn’t so much audition herself with her role as futz around with it. Rose is an intrinsically mysterious, ambiguous character. We’re not supposed to know where Rose is coming from, or what she’s up to. Still, I think it’s important that Rose herself should have at least some idea. Because the big question about Rose is: Why does she bring Cliff back to her apartment, if she lives on fantasy? Part of the answer to that question is the central intrigue of the play, so I won’t give it away here. But the rest of the answer is that Rose is taking an emotional risk. Rose is putting herself on the line, and I don’t see that in Wallace’s portrayal. I only see a neurotic game of cat and mouse.

Director Jim Ortlieb doesn’t seem to have fully trusted the script, and I can’t blame him there. Ortlieb sped up the tempo of the several long and gaudy monologues, including Cliff’s endless ode to 18-wheeling. Yet Ortlieb might have fared better by either trimming the monologues or investing time and effort in eking something out of them aside from Mastrosimone’s self-indulgence with language. I suppose Ortlieb chose to trust his actors instead, and their mistake was in trusting him. What I’m suggesting is that someone should have jumped behind the wheel of this vehicle, and that responsibility usually falls to the director.

Ortlieb does, however, take decisive command in the second act when Cliff, who has been shown to be a jealous guy, starts slamming and throwing things about. Cliff’s tirade is violent and virtually unprecedented, out of proportion with anything except perhaps the excesses of the German Sturm und Drang movement of the late 18th century. I guess Ortlieb figured the play needed a little more action. Well, it does, but if you’re going to be gratuitous, why not roller skates and chainsaws?

The greater seduction here is not the seduction of Rose by Cliff, but the seduction of the actors by the play. The Woolgatherer is well known in the theater community as a resource for audition material. Not only are its several monologues of two or more minutes in length, but they fall easily out of context and pack an immediate impact. It’s that immediate impact that proves seductive, since it allows the actor to play it flat out, without restraint, without regard for ensemble, continuity, rhythm, or the meaning of the play as a whole. And all for a moment’s gratification–Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.

No, Wallace and Finnerty don’t wholly give in to this temptation, but, yes, they give in enough so that their performances don’t bring them together like partners in a mating ritual.