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Write Club

An Author Battles His Characters and Peers

LIKE A PRAYER: Max Majillzodeh (left) and Rachel Olivia Condliffe ask a higher source.

By John Barry | Posted 7/2/2008

In Jarvis Legend's Borrowed Skin--Julie Lewis' contribution to the BaltimorePlaywrights Festival--a writer sits down at his trusty typewriter, and the room starts to fill up with bizarre characters who appear to have been the product of a caffeinated brain storm. The characters themselves are somewhat cartoonish, awkwardly crafted products of the author's own self-image and his somewhat puerile sexual fantasies. He's reached that magic number--37 or so pages--at which the characters themselves run out of juice, and the author starts looking desperately for reasons to keep them alive. Basically, he's looking to achieve closure, not necessarily for his art, but because he's been given a sizeable endowment by an arts foundation to write his play.

The subject of the story, Jarvis (Steve Lichtenstein), is an everyman who has been caught at the end of his creative rope. It's not clear how else to define him: Writing wasn't his day job, and now he's obsessed with it. He's banging his head against a wall. The jump between that point and insanity isn't immediately apparent, but it occurs, and Lichtenstein manages to inject a frustrated energy that keeps the flow going. He doesn't go overboard with that portrayal: It's the characters floating around in his head that keep things a little crazy.

What playwright Lewis really has fun with, though, are the somewhat nightmarish characters who start to populate Jarvis' story and his life. Marla M (Cory Stine) is a hilarious, self-absorbed artistic impresario wannabe who is given the unenviable task of finding out whether Jarvis has actually finished his play. He's a misguided and delusional aesthete of the sort that might populate Yasmina Reza's Art at the Everyman Theatre. As he prods Jarvis to find what he has accomplished with the grant money that has been given him, Marla appears incapable of letting reality of the situation filter through. Jarvis forces him to extract the truth like wisdom teeth, and in that painful, funny episode, Lewis' talents as a dramatist really shine through.

Jarvis' girlfriend, Liza (Jessica Taylor), is also a little deluded by her boyfriend. He is on another planet mentally, and their relationship is really defunct, but that, too, takes a long time to sink in. Her perky optimism has touching charm, and is a little nightmarish in itself. Meanwhile, Connamarra Trinkwalder (Elaina Telitsina) takes that forced cheerfulness up a notch in her role as Jarvis' overseer during his incarceration in the loony bid--where he goes, apparently, because he can't write, or because he is obsessed with writing. It's not clear how he got there, but Telitsina's performance is well worth the journey, as she also appears fixated on success while living on a darker side. Dr. Eromezis (Joe Dunn) is her superior, a man driven by his own hankering for success. In another great scene, he finds that his prize pupil--Jarvis--isn't really benefiting from his vaunted treatments, and the doctor he breaks down in tears and is exposed as a child.

So the odd title of the play actually begins to make sense. The play--at least half of it--is populated by characters who are gradually forced to take off their outer skins. Jarvis gets exposed as a wannabe writer, Marla as a wannabe agent, Liza as a wannabe girlfriend, and Dr. Eromezis as a wannabe doctor. And that works fine. What is less successful is Lewis' attempts to weave this in with a sort of dreamy representation of Jarvis' somewhat caffeinated, deluded attempt at playwriting. Nancy Flores plays the transparently constructed character of a prostitute/heroine/ideal woman. The talented Flores takes on the role with slutty panache, but, true to the story, the role itself is a cartoonish projection of adolescent fantasy. Alfario (Chris Magorian) is apparently Jarvis' inflated dramatic doppelganger. Again, Jarvis isn't much of a playwright, and it shows. As the young Sam and Porru Porru, respectively, Rachel Olivia Condliffe and Max Majillzodeh make an entertaining duo; Condliffe's character is a fascinating combination of a 10-year-old who straddles the line between adulthood and childhood. Majillzodeh plays off her very well, too.

In the end, Lewis is able to piece together a play that, to begin with, has a frustrating premise--literally frustrating, because it's about frustration. But the play never pauses, and thanks to an energetic, driven production (directed by Nancy Murray) with some truly memorable characters, that premise doesn't weigh down this darkly humorous, sometimes hilarious, production.

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