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Deconstruction Junction

A Pair Of One-Acts Navigate Stories Within Stories

MARGINALIZED: (from left) Lisa Geyer “directs” Maddie Hauck and Tim Elliot through “Marginal Man.”

By John Barry | Posted 6/15/2005

Marginal Man by Greg Jenkins, Ouch by Joe Dennison

At the Mobtown Theater through June 26

Telling people that the stage is an artificial construct isn’t really going to knock their socks off anymore. And over the years a number of the entries to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival have milked that theme. It’s one thing to talk about the playwright’s predicament if you’re Luigi Pirandello; it’s another thing to deconstruct your own plays if they’re works in progress to begin with. Under the header “Reality Checks,” the two one-acts at Mobtown Theater, “Marginal Man” and “Ouch,” take us into this territory again with varying degrees of success.

Greg Jenkins’ “Marginal Man” actually does very well, despite the tired premise. In fact, it’s one of the funniest and best acted BPF entries this reviewer has seen in a while. So after an 11-year hiatus (his Silly Putty Man was produced for the festival in 1994) it’s good to have Jenkins back. He has a knack for quick dialogue and pacing—and he has the added benefit of an excellent cast.

The barely coherent plot of “Marginal Man” would be a weakness if the cast weren’t having so much fun with it. Max (Robbie Heacock) is in the throes of divorce. He finds himself in a bar with Jerry (Chris Poverman), an old friend who is offering him advice whether he wants it or not. There’s a sudden switch to a café, and then to a therapist’s office, where a schizophrenic Al (Tim Elliot) is humping his secretary Gina (Maddie Hauck) on a couch. Then it switches to a record store where Max’s employer (also Robbie Heacock) has to fire him after buying 14 thousand Japanese CDs. Meanwhile, the director Lenny (Lisa Geyer) jumps on- and offstage every once in a while shouting directions, just to remind us that this is a play within a play.

Jenkins turns this into a four-tier comedy with lightning-quick shifts between scenes, scenarios, theater, and real life. In 45 minutes or so, which went by pretty quickly, the cast milks the four major characters—Max, Jerry, Al, and Gina—for everything they’re worth. Heacock plays the central character with confidence. As Max’s overweight bar buddy and mentor, Poverman gives a smooth performance that felt right out of Cheers. Hauck’s hilarious portrayal of a bad actress is good enough to get her blacklisted from Baltimore theater forever—and that’s meant as a compliment. As Al the psychotic psychiatrist, Elliot gives the play its manic edge.

The more surreal “Ouch” was less successful. Playwright Joe Dennison is one of Baltimore’s more prolific playwrights and a past BPF winner, but “Ouch” lacks the tightly scripted dialogue that made previous one-acts such as “Air/Ice” successful. With “Ouch” the problem is pretty simple: There are three actors and six characters, but they have very little chance to get to know one another.

The forced chaos of the first half of “Ouch” makes it almost impossible for them to develop relationships. An aging agoraphobic with a British accent shoots off grenade launchers from her bathtub offstage, while flustered art collector Annie (Lisa Geyer) scrambles around the stage planning a Peter Max exhibit. Then we’re introduced to Olivia (Sandy Isteero), a young woman who has barged in the room with the ashes of Annie’s high-school boyfriend. Then—well, not to give it away, but it’s necessary—the three characters appear in a hospital as comatose mother, daughter, and doctor. Here we learn that the first portion of the play is actually a somewhat scrambled version of real life. That gives the play more of a plot arc, but, as one of Dennison’s characters puts it, “If this was a play or a novel, I’d rewrite the whole shebang.”

If Dennison really means what he says, though, “Ouch” is worth a rewrite, because at first glance it has a more appealing premise than “Marginal Man”: a dreamlike collaboration between a woman and her comatose mother. The reference to a “Bolivian Bullfighter” channels Pedro Almodóvar’s movie Talk to Her, and the musings on dream/reality are from the land of 17th-century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón. The fact that the second portion of the play radically reframes the first portion is a clever twist, at least on a theoretical level, but the plot structure doesn’t support the premise.

A highlight of both plays, meanwhile, is the scenic design, courtesy of Michelle Datz. Sharp scenic contrasts and quick transitions are the key to both plays, and the shift in “Ouch” from a pop-art environment (with a room-size, Peter Max-esque painting) to hospital ward is the play’s high point.

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