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Short Cuts

Plot Twists and Strong Performances Anchor This Bpf Production

PLAYWRIGHT SANDWICH: (from left) Troy Hopper, Joe Dennison, and Mawk take a walk on Dennison's "Pier."

By John Barry | Posted 7/23/2008

In This Life: Four Short Plays

By Jim Cary, Joe Dennison, Julie Lewis, and Pat Montley

At Vagabond Players through Aug. 3

This evening of four Baltimore Playwright Festival one-acts ends with a secret in a locket. In Jim Cary's "Trio," a jazz pianist and drummer argue about the possible choices for their saxophone player. At first, that seems to be what the play is about. But in the final quarter of "Trio," the piano player opens a locket that his mother gave him on her deathbed. Then the whole equation is suddenly changed, and the play lifts itself into another, more dramatically significant theatrical dimension. It's a template that each playwright follows. The onstage situation isn't enough to build drama on, and a secret needs to be exposed for a full-scale narrative to come to a halt. But it seems these writers are at their best in these one-acts when they have two guys in the ring, duking it out, and dealing with problems that everyone can see.

Joe Dennison's "Pier" ripples with tension from the beginning. The reason is pretty obvious: an old Polonius-like man starts to intrude on the quiet meditations of a young businessman. The repartee that goes on there is Dennison's strength: off-the-cuff, casual chatter. One old man, Hap (played by the actor known as MAWK), offers a bologna sandwich and a Schlitz to young stranger Stan (Troy Hopper), and the stranger balks.

Julie Lewis' "Foundation and Mettle" moves quickly into gear as a young man starts to coach his aging father through a workout regime. The dad thinks he's doing it as a favor to his son, and his son thinks he's doing it as a favor to his dad. As they start to rub one another the wrong way, Lewis' dialogue is funny, and even a little touching.

Pat Montley's "Suckled by Wolves" begins as Rick (Hopper) and Steve (Sammie Real III) are standing outside a priest's office to settle old scores. They both have bones to pick with the priest, and they also have a few to pick with one another. Their personal problems gradually begin to overwhelm their reason for coming there.

In the excellent "Trio"--the longest one-act of the evening, and arguably the best--playwright Jim Cary gives a dead-on portrayal of two jazz musicians, Jesse (MAWK) and Red (Marc Stevens), discussing possible replacements for their aging saxophone player. For anyone who hasn't been in a jazz band, it's a fascinating exploration of a relationship in which, even in dialogue, the two musicians seem to be improvising their way through familiar themes. In rapidly paced dialogue they bicker, make up, bicker some more, and even consider separation, but never quite miss a beat. It becomes clear that neither Jesse nor Red can exist without the other, as they complete one another's thoughts and riff off their respective insecurities.

So what was it with all the clever endings? A 20-minute one-act is easy to start but difficult to end, and that seems to be where each playwright chose the fairly obvious device of a plot twist. Without giving any endings away, it's fair to say that each In This Life playwright relies on an invisible outside character or past history to bring the conflict to its head. That turns a one-act, which is an art form in itself, into a play in miniature. And in each case, as the writer scrambles in the drawer for old secrets, the play's strength--imaginative, quickly paced onstage interaction between well-defined characters--gets overshadowed by the plot.

That shouldn't outweigh the fact that these were all well-crafted, quick-moving plays. Susan McCarty, who directs three of the four, manages to bring these four impressive actors to the fore immediately, although the characters are a little less defined in "Suckled by Wolves."

The four-person ensemble does the playwrights credit with polished performances. In "Trio," Stevens shines with a magnetic, brooding alpha-male performance that he delivers with split-second timing. Real, a newcomer to the local theater from Morgan State University, is his best in "Foundation," as a younger son rightly suspicious of his father's contempt for him. And in "Pier," Hopper delivers his portrayal of a young, somewhat conflicted man on a bench with smooth confidence.

It's safe to say that MAWK is a standout local talent. In Dennison's Punch a few months ago, he delivered an unforgettable fast-forward monologue of a boxer's rise and fall. In this evening's "Pier," he plays a 60-year-old man, and in "Trio," he's a youthful, promising musician. MAWK's switches in age is impressive, but he also brings an appealing mix of cockiness and vulnerability to the roles.

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