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Father and Son

Soap Opera Set-Up Finds a Way to Transcend The Genre

TALK IT OUT: Richard Peck (left) shares his thoughts with Andy Kirtland.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/2/2008

Finding Fossils

By Ty DeMartino

Through July 13 at Fell's Point Corner Theatre

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry Finding Fossils should be a Lifetime movie. It all has the requisite melodramatic elements. A father and son get together at the family riverside vacation cabin about a year after the death of the wife/mother who spent most of her life holding them together. Ratcheting up that symbolic elephant in the room is the wheelchair she occupied before dying, which still sits on the porch. Father and son specialize in miscommunication, but fortunately there's a longtime riverfront neighbor who can drop by occasionally and dispense with quotidian corn-poke wisdom and alleviate the tension anytime it threatens to capsize the precarious father and son balance. And just to cement the play's overwrought melodrama, the son is a director of daytime television soap operas. Get out your handkerchiefs.

A funny thing happens on the way to the expected overcoming differences to find a heartwarming conclusion, however, and that is playwright Ty DeMartino. He resorts to just about every throwaway cliché available in realizing a fraught father-son relationship: the son is gay, the father is a manly old-school Italian American; the son has shortened his name for the entertainment industry, the father feels it's because he's ashamed of his ancestry; the son and his partner are adopting a five-year-old African-American boy, the father tells off-color jokes that aren't exactly what you'd call politically correct; the dying mother made the son promise he wouldn't abandon the father after her death; the father has successfully alienated his daughter and is doing his best to push his son away for good. About the only thing this father and son share is that they both loved the woman who is now painfully missing from their lives and, yes, that old saw, DNA.

Even the performances adhere to expectations. Bobby DeAngelo plays the father Vince as if based on a Tom Waits song. Vince wears paint spattered slacks, an old, fraying white t-shirt, and a rumpled porkpie hat atop his head. Vince, who worked as a security guard at some unnamed plant, favors the old, jazzy songs of his youth when he was courting his wife, and his idea of good eating is some Italian cold cuts or some gnocchi and a steak. A cigar butt continually switches places in DeAngelo's mouth and hands. And DeAngelo brings this prickly man to life with a gruff voice and a knack for looking at people as if through a wolf's slanted eyes, as if he's already made up his mind about a person or situation and is merely biding time to let what he really thinks be known.

His son Gus (Andy Kirtland) is a textbook young urbane man, and Kirtland gamely hits every one of that archetypes marks. He arrives in a rented sports car, looking tidy in crisp black slacks and a matching, if casual, black shirt. He's brought the capicola for his father, but also some squid-ink pasta from the restaurant in his neighborhood that Vince declines contemptuously. Gus keeps a small bottle of antimicrobial hand cleaner in his pocket, which he whips out and cleanses almost as if by nervous tic. And Gus can reply with the curt, flippant remarks--wittily worded and crisply enunciated--just as fast as Vince can dish out his judgmental bile or set-in-his-ways reproach. Fortunately, good neighbor Johnny (Richard Peck) drops by, Gomer Pyle style, to defuse most situations before they get too out of hand.

And over the roughly 24 hours of Gus visit to the cabin, Vince and his son circle and claw at each other, reopening old wounds, create a few new ones, and, in general do the expected dance of a father and son trying to cope with the death of a loved one. Director Alexander Carney stages this tango of wills on a simple set of his own design, where Vince and Gus are trapped in a small family space surround by wide-open nature. It's as if everything about the play is setting up a male version of a movie starring Jennie Garth or Kellie Martin. Even the title, once its significance is illuminated, taps into a nostalgic, weepie well.

So credit DeMartino with tweaking this formula not only just enough to keep your dinner down, but navigate a sincere emotional terrain inside the artificial. Yes, Finding Fossils is dotted with enough physical and verbal comedy so that it doesn't become a dramatic chore, but its true surprise is how DeMartino finds an emotional well completely antithetical to this genre. Like a soap opera, Finding Fossils lets you relish in family foibles, and even offers its characters a way out toward some sense of closure. And DeMartino does find a way to give his characters exactly what they want--but, as so often with life itself, it's the exact opposite of phony, heartwarming, or infelicitous.

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