Kinetic Theatre Company

at Centre East Studio

Bad poetry awakens the reader to the virtues of good poetry. Only after you’ve experienced what doesn’t work do you begin to understand what does.

That’s why the Kinetic Theatre’s woefully inept production of Who’ll Save the Plowboy? is a must see for aspiring actors, directors, and playwrights–it vividly demonstrates what doesn’t work onstage.

In superb productions, all the tricks remain invisible. A skillfully written play, for example, displays an internal logic that is unassailable–you never get the feeling the playwright has contrived an event just to get a particular character offstage for a few minutes. A perceptive director understands what the playwright is trying to accomplish and allows that logic to unfold naturally onstage. And talented actors, of course, never appear to be acting.

In Plowboy, it’s not that the tricks are visible, but that there aren’t any. Sometimes a dazzling cast and a gifted director can disguise the defects of a mediocre play. And in fact that apparently happened with Plowboy’s original production: in 1962 it received the Obie Award for “best American play,” and Frank D. Gilroy was named “most promising playwright.” That seems incredible, given that the script is maudlin, melodramatic, and implausible. But Obie Awards were also given to two cast members of that original production for their performances, which must explain why the play looked so good.

In this production, however, all the defects of the script are exposed by the inept acting and thoughtless direction. Here, a mediocre play is made to look worse than it really is.

Plowboy is about Albert Cobb, who is trapped in a bitterly unhappy marriage. His Army buddies gave him the nickname “Plowboy” because he was always talking about buying a farm after the war (World War II), but the farm didn’t work out, and he has been working for years as a meter reader for the electric company. Two days before Christmas, Plowboy receives a visit from Larry, the man who saved his life. As Albert tells his wife, he was wounded and lay bleeding to death because his buddies were pinned down by enemy gunfire. When the commander called out, “Who’ll save the Plowboy?” no one answered. Then Larry rushed out to rescue his wounded friend, and though he was seriously wounded himself, he still managed to carry the Plowboy back to safety.

Ken Erickson, who plays the Plowboy, recites this story at the beginning of the play while staring out a window at the back of the set, and his delivery is one of the first signs that this production is in trouble. Erickson recites the speech with a peculiar twang, as though he were making fun of someone else telling the story. But no, that’s the accent Erickson has adopted for the role. It’s so cartoonish, however, that it sounds like mockery.

Unfortunately Erickson’s shortcomings pale beside the performances of the other cast members. As Albert’s unhappy wife, Jan Garner recites her vicious lines so blandly that she seems bored. Jinny Allen, who plays Larry’s mother, has a scene in which she is supposed to gaze around the room, taking in the details, but she gazes with such ferocity she seems to be about to have a seizure. And in their brief walk-on parts, Brad Miller and George Spelvin dispel the notion that anyone can get up on a stage and act.

Only Reid Ostrowski, who plays Larry, displays any understanding of what it takes to create a character. I’ve seen Ostrowski give some terrific performances. This is not one of them. Even Ostrowski needs a director to help him, and Bruce Wilde obviously provided very little help. But at least Ostrowski makes it clear that Larry, who wants to see if the life he saved was worth the painful wound it caused him, is a troubled man.

What exactly a director does is always tough to determine, but Wilde’s utter lack of direction here helps answer the question. Scenes that are supposed to build to a climax don’t. Characters appear to have no coherent motivation. In one scene, Albert’s wife goads him until he flies into a rage and slaps her, but under Wilde’s direction the timing is so far off that the slap passes with as much fanfare as if it had been a sneeze. Albert just continues to talk, and his wife barely reacts to the assault.

Some of the lines are actually misinterpreted. When Larry is quizzing Albert’s wife, trying to find out why she seems to hate him, he concludes that she is angry because Larry talked Albert into buying a farm that eventually failed. “If it’s the money, let me know and I’ll make it good,” says Larry, his words dripping with sincerity. But his next line is: “I apologize for that remark; it was uncalled for,” indicating that, as the play was written, he should have been trying to be hurtful or sarcastic when he uttered the previous line.

In the absence of skilled actors and a canny director, Gilroy’s play starts to look just plain silly: Because Larry’s war wound is terminal, he gallantly ends his marriage. Albert and his wife have a deformed son. She summons her lover by playing the piano. And because Gilroy wants Albert out of the picture for a few minutes, he has him summoned to the office to straighten out some paperwork–on Christmas Eve.

If you want to understand the function of, say, shock absorbers, you should ride in a car that doesn’t have any. Their function will cease to be theoretical, and become painfully apparent.

The Kinetic’s production of Who’ll Save the Plowboy? is such a car, and it should be endured for educational purposes only.