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Career Play

Three one-acts depict a working world that's more talk than action

Joseph Wycoff (top) comes to grips with Garrett Neergaard.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/10/2010

Working It Out

By Aaron Sorkin, Lynn Rosen, and Rick Cleveland

At Center Stage through March 28

There's nothing about the new CenterStage show, Working It Out, to challenge the belief that the one-act play is a lost art form. Unlike fiction, where the short story continues to thrive despite its commercial futility, the theater has allowed one-act plays to wither away to little more than short exercises for actors.

The three one-acts roped together at CenterStage--Aaron Sorkin's Hidden in This Picture, Rick Cleveland's Jerry and Tom, and Lynn Rosen's Washed Up on the Potomac--don't offer much in the way of dramatic structure or even incident; they mostly consist of clumps of people talking in their respective workplaces. The Sorkin and Cleveland pieces, however, contain some very pleasurable talk, and it would have been a shame to keep all that good writing off the stage forever.

Director Jason Loewith has a strategy for coping with this dilemma. Instead of presenting the three one-acts intact, one after the other, he chops them up into pieces and scrambles extended excerpts from each into a 100-minute, intermission-less show. Thus, he begins with Cleveland's Jerry and Tom, two mob hitmen waiting for phone instructions as they banter with a roped and hooded hostage in one of the CenterStage aisles. The phone still hasn't rung when Loewith shifts our attention to the main stage where Rosen's three main characters are bemoaning their life as temp proofreaders beneath the long fluorescent lights of a D.C. ad agency.

It takes a lot of whining first, but eventually one of the three finds the courage to walk off the job. Her stunned co-workers find their desks taken over by Jerry and Tom, who are now at Kovachy Motors, the mob-run used-car lot that's a front for the duo's true business. The older, stouter Tom teaches the tricks of the trade to the younger, leaner Jerry during murders at a Chicago bus stop and an Orlando motel and during the hours of waiting in between.

Then, a pastoral landscape of wooded mountains and a sunset-tinted lake descends behind the stage, and Sorkin's protagonist, an artsy director, is setting up the last shot of a movie that is already $6.5 million over budget, three weeks over schedule, and badly compromised. By the time the shot is finished, the film is even more compromised, but not without some very witty give-and-take between the director, the producer, the assistant director, and the screenwriter. Then, the focus shifts back to the aisle where Jerry, Tom, and the hostage finally hear the phone ring.

This approach camouflages the narrative weakness of the three pieces by substituting story shifts for story development. It underlines the thematic unity of the three plays by juxtaposing one work place with another. Mostly, however, it neutralizes the worst flaws so we can appreciate the virtues of Sorkin's and Cleveland's dialogue.

Sorkin, the writer behind the TV series The West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, certainly has an ear for the way people talk, and he skewers the pompous film director (Joseph Wycoff) and his geeky sidekick the writer (Garrett Neergaard) with merciless hilarity. It's not really a one-act play so much as an extended TV comedy sketch, but it's a good one.

Cleveland turned his 1994 one-act play into a full-length feature film, directed by actor Saul Rubinek, in 1998. Borrowing liberally from Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos, both versions of Jerry and Tom were constructed from self-contained vignettes that featured long stretches of talk and short bursts of action. It was a case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts, but some of the parts were quite entertaining, and by breaking them up with the two other plays, Loewith dampens our impatience that Jerry and Tom doesn't seem to be going anywhere original.

Joe Mantegna played Tom in the movie, and at CenterStage, Vasili Bogazianos not only looks quite a bit like Mantegna, but also has the same air of imperturbable, world-weary confidence. By contrast, the wiry Luke Robertson gives the younger Jerry a jittery edge that neither Tom nor the audience can ever quite trust. Because Cleveland is more of an actor's playwright than a writer's playwright, the main concern here is the interaction between the title characters, and these two performers make the most of it.

As for the Rosen piece, well, she certainly captures the mindless tedium of office work.

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