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Stage

Reality Check

Towson Theater Alum Deftly Intertwines Life and Fantasy In Standout Playwrights Fest Production

LICKETY: Steve Polites bounces between Tori Katz (left) and Elizabeth Hamill.

By John Barry | Posted 8/16/2006

Split

By Ira Gamerman

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Aug. 27

The story line of Ira Gamermanís Split ought to be enough to put anybody to sleep. A young guy, three years out of college, wonders what heís going to do with his life. His Jewish mother tells him to pick up his trash and get a good job and marry a nice Jewish girl. His girlfriend wants him to commit. and he isnít sure he wants to. His therapist asks why heís so indecisive. He fiddles around with the guitar. An old college flame comes back to him.

Somehow, Gamerman manages to craft this fairly inauspicious scenario into one of the high points of this yearís Baltimore Playwrights Festival. For a young playwright just out of Towson University--for any playwright, as a matter of fact--Split is an accomplishment.

It may be the main character. Adam (Steve Polites) is agreeably low-key, but his mind is active enough to keep things moving on several time zones. Heís likably inert, outwardly passive, a little neurotic, and disarmingly chatty. Heís funny, but heís not trying to be a stand-up comic. Heís in a band but isnít trying to be a rock star. Basically, Adam is attractive because heís inviting the audience--or anyone else around him--into his head. And if the decisions he has to make arenít really dramatic or life altering, his subdued thought process is pretty fascinating. Polites, meanwhile, makes the juggling look easy, by taking us through a stream of hang-ups and therapy sessions while keeping up a natural dialogue with the audience.

By the middle of the first act, though, it becomes clear that this is more than a comic monologue. Itís a story of extended procrastination. Adam wonders where exactly his life is headed and doesnít really want to find out. So he winds up creating dialogues with real and unreal characters about his situation. His therapist, Dr. Frankfurt (J. McCaul Baggett), doubles as his best friend, Vince (also Baggett). His new flame, Jenny (Elizabeth Hamill), also gets reincarnated as a sexual predator from college. His mom (Tori Katz) doubles as--you guessed it--his girlfriend. And while these are all things he probably should talk over with his therapist, you never question his sanity.

What sets this play above the common share is how easily this sort of inner monologue gets adapted to the stage. Chris Attenboroughís layered set is barely noticeable, but as the play progresses it becomes a landscape for Adamís consciousness. Characters slip in and out of the picture easily and without much fanfare, participating in Adamís extended dialogue with himself. In a clever touch, small bundles of light bulbs are suspended from the ceiling to light up different portions of the stage, which somehow that makes the transfers of time zone and personality feel natural.

While this is a comedy, Gamerman has his pulse on the world of unlimited cell-phone minutes. What Adam says is less important than how he multitasks his existence. The fluid rhythm of his speech turns his life into a cycle of small dramas that he juggles almost like one-acts. Director Ian Belknap keeps things moving smoothly; mini-scenes blend into one another without pause. While Adam comes across as a little abstracted emotionally, his chatty encounters with fantasy friends, real girlfriends, and possible girlfriends have an appealing intimacy. Itís tough to figure where exactly he stands with respect to all of his acquaintances, real and unreal, but even if heís hollow to the core, heís a nice guy.

In brief, Split is a play about how we think. The structural synergy of the story has a decidedly contemporary quality to it. If anything, it borrows some from TV sitcoms--thereís a Scrubs-like fluidity to the narratorís fantasies, which spark brief time warps and character switches. Nothing Adam says is new, but his bemused, affectionate mien makes us want to hear it again. So his mom wags her finger and tells him to take out the garbage, or tries to drag him to the movies, and instead of getting disgusted, heís just amused.

Adam is undoubtedly at the playís center, but the work is evenly divided among the cast of five. The multiple roles arenít just opportunities for cast members to step in and out of characters; here, they walk fine lines between personalities. Katz, for instance, shifts deftly between Adamís mother and girlfriend, fuzzing the lines just enough to make it interesting. Baggett does a remarkable job of doubling as Adamís therapist and best friend--by the end of the story, the two roles are interchangeable.

This one is definitely worth the trip. Towsonís Theatre Arts program has been a major feeder into Baltimoreís stages. If this well-orchestrated ensemble, composed largely of Towson theater majors, is any indication, even more are coming.

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