Remains Theatre Ensemble

Think you can enjoy comedy without a two-drink minimum? Not particularly worried if it doesn’t change your life? Can you manage to sit still for a couple hours? Then check it out.

Sneaky Feelings (whatever that means) is a triple bill of one-act comedies including The Author’s Voice by Richard Greenberg, Albert’s Bridge by Tom Stoppard, and David Mamet’s The Frog Prince. All three plays are well written. There are three directors involved, one for each play, rather than spreading the talents of one director as thin as a drop cloth. And, although not a single member of the Remains ensemble is cast, I very much doubt that Remains patrons will be disappointed by the acting.

First up is The Author’s Voice. Gene, the author of brilliant yet tortured prose, is a crippled wreck of a man. Todd, who fished Gene out of the gutter, puts Gene up in a storage closet, a crawl space really, adjacent to his bedroom. While Gene writes, Todd fronts for him, pretending to be the author, and is the recipient of fame and fortune and the sexual interest of their editor, Portia. But Todd starts to fear he’ll be found out, so he becomes, in effect, Gene’s jailer. Meanwhile, Gene’s imprisonment causes him to become more and more detached, which makes his writing deteriorate. You see, Gene’s life is vicarious. He lives through literature, at first, and then through eavesdropping. But Todd and Portia make for such clumsy, mundane lovers that they’re not worth watching, so Gene must literally come out of the closet and grasp the horns of his dilemma.

The script, by this new guy Greenberg, is witty and has an intriguing fairy-tale quality to it. But I think it raises too many issues–beauty versus deformity, exaltation versus despair, freedom versus bondage, and more–than can be explored in a one-act play. So there are some ragged edges. Yet that’s a small price to forfeit for the character of Gene.

And from the moment he scrambles out of his dwarf closet, Denis O’Hare brings Gene, and this play, to life. O’Hare makes Gene physically fascinating, magnetic. Nor is it a perverse appeal, because you’re not attracted to his pain and deformity, but rather to the coiled, frustrated energy pent up within him. You root for Gene, the underdog. You want to see him triumph over the insipid Todd (played by Bruce Turk), who describes himself as looking like a cologne model. Just once you want to see Quasimodo get his just revenge. I have to credit both Greenberg and (especially) O’Hare for that, for the opportunity to let my own hunchback out of the closet for a breather.

Next up is Albert’s Bridge. Well, it’s not really Albert’s bridge. It’s the Clifton Bay Bridge. But Albert, who’s just taken his degree in philosophy, falls in love with the high-level bridge when he gets a job painting it. He loves the humble “dip, brush, slap, slide” of his job, the awesome view, the engineering miracle of the ironwork. It becomes an obsessive love (causing him to neglect his wife) and a selfish love (Albert must defend his turf against a pesky, would-be jumper named Fraser, who also develops an affection for the bridge). Finally, Albert must face the disastrous onslaught of an army of painters dispatched to deal with a rust and peeling-paint crisis.

The language of Albert’s Bridge is lush and euphoric, early Stoppard at his best. This is a play for the ear, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was written for radio. It’s also written to be performed at a sprint, which is common to English farce, but which often leaves American audiences trying to keep up in a state of something like oxygen deprivation. It’s all the more appropriate, since the experience lends you some of the driven, giddy feeling that Albert himself gets up there at the top of his bridge.

Denis O’Hare gives a workmanlike performance as Albert, skilled but not nearly as exciting as his acting in The Author’s Voice. Conversely, Bruce Turk is much more effective here, playing a nervous twit of a civil servant named George, and as Fraser, the jumper with a vision. Miranda Daniloff distinguishes herself as Albert’s wife, Kate, the definitive stereotype of the upper lower-class Englishwoman.

Aside from being the best written of the three one-acts, Albert’s Bridge is also the best directed. Larry Sloan’s staging of this radio play is no slight feat of engineering itself. He uses a bare stage and (thanks to Geoffrey Bushor’s lighting design) pools of light, along with a projection of crisscrossed girders, to create a playfully abstract set. It has an off-center, proletarian look to it. Call it Socialist Surrealism. And here Sloan places his characters, sometimes leaping between imaginary girders, or solidly grounded by a baby carriage, but always capitalizing on the tension in the space between them. Yes, I’d say Sloan has an eye for tension and an ear for the exhilarating rhythm in this play and the sense of humor to pull it off.

The Frog Prince concludes the evening. Mamet puts a spin on this classic tale by creating a truly fatuous and selfish Prince who talks like a Chicago alderman. OK, so the Prince gets turned into a frog and starts to learn humility. Only problem is, no princess comes along and kisses him. So he hangs around. He works on a milkmaid for a while, but she already has a boyfriend. Winter comes. Things get worse, but eventually turn out OK, if not exactly happily ever after. Mamet’s point seems to be that life isn’t a fairy tale, that goodness and loyalty pay off with the consistency of a slot machine, and that sometimes it’s wiser just to pay your dues and not ask questions.

Joel Murray (as the Prince) carries the play. Out of this cast of actors, Murray is the closest thing to a “comedian,” by which I mean that his act is more personality than impersonation. And that personality has a ring of deja vu. Murray cocks his head and does double takes like Gleason, exudes the cynical self-assurance of (his brother) Bill Murray, and throws his weight around like Belushi. It’s a weird mixture all right, and periodically distracting, but it makes a hysterical frog prince.

Supporting roles are unusually important here. Jenny Bacon (as the milkmaid) plays the fresh young lass with cleavage. Ron Crawford plays the stalwart servant with the medieval accent. Both roles are necessary to create that wholesome, once-upon-a-time world of the fairy tale. But even more important is the peasant woman who originally curses the Prince. As played by Linda Emond, she has a no-nonsense presence that neatly upsets the glib, comic equilibrium of this fractured fairy tale, which I imagine is exactly what Mamet had in mind when he wrote this thing.

Well, there’s too much to get into one critique here, and if “sneaky feelings” is meant to suggest some kind of overall theme, I still don’t get it. But maybe you’re not in the mood for an overall theme anyway. So go. Have a good time. Wet your pants. I don’t recommend shows very often, you know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.