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PS I Love You

With a Signature Style and an Eye For Wit, the Plays of Baltimore's PS Lorio are Valentines to the Confused and Dysfunctional

Christopher Myers
Mobtown Player: PS Lorio says her adopted hometown is a "perfect test market for new material."

By John Barry | Posted 7/23/2003

For five years, playwright PS Lorio has been populating Baltimore stages with characters that seem to have popped out of a forgotten corner of turn-of-the-21st-century America. They're drawn from a pantheon of the confused and dysfunctional: Alzheimer's patients, magicians, perverts, overweight women, beer-swilling guys, lesbians, overbearing aunts, the list goes on. But now that Lorio has bought a house in Hampden, it looks like they're all here to stay.

"Not only is Baltimore cheap," Lorio says, "but it's an ideal stomping ground for up-and-coming playwrights to stage and revise new work. It's an easy town to work in. Would you consider Baltimore a cultural town? I don't know. But the audiences are sophisticated, which makes it a perfect test market for new material."

Lorio has a lot of material to test. In 10 years of playwriting, she has written 11 full-length plays. They've been produced, among other places, in Kalamazoo, Mich.; Portland, Ore.; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore. Local theaters that have staged her work include Mobtown Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Theatre Project, and Queer Café. Currently, two of her works are being shown in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival: 10 Reasons Big Betty Is Stuck on the Side of the Road in a Little Pink Dress, co-written with Dahlia Kaminsky, and Missing Phil.

A native of Kalamazoo, Lorio has been writing plays since the early '90s, after completing a novel, Expenses. Then in 1998, she moved to Baltimore, where she had some friends and connections, to bring her writing to a larger audience. She doesn't dig too deeply to explain why she moved from prose to drama. "I was impatient," she says. "I didn't want to spend all that time describing things, I wanted to get straight to the dialogue."

Unlike many of local playwrights, she seems to have developed a signature style. Lorio describes her plays as "character-driven," but many of her plays develop around peculiar conceits that drive the plot. Although she hasn't written for television, a lot of the shorter plays have the impact of Saturday Night Live skits. In her play from earlier this year, Modern Games, for instance, a dysfunctional couple tries to patch together their relationship with phone sex. In her 1998 play P.L.P.D. , a testosterone-driven young man tries to take out insurance on his penis. In 2000's Eggtoss, two characters drop eggs down a lesbian woman's fallopian tubes.

Lorio's plays aren't all comedies. Missing Phil, which premieres at the Vagabond Players July 25, focuses on an old man's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. But most of her work is pervaded with a dry, satiric sense of humor that riffs on romantic relationships and sexual identity. "Laughter breaks down walls," she says. "And once our walls are down, we can really hear each other. So people leave the theater having tried on someone else's shoes."

While Lorio's plays are populated with gay and lesbian characters, she is wary about being pigeonholed as a gay playwright. "I"m openly gay, but I'm not a poster child for the gay community," she says. "In my plays, for instance, lesbians are confronted with challenges, but they aren't victims." She notes that in Big Betty homosexual and heterosexual relationships seem hopelessly entangled in the world of her central character.

When asked for her influences, Lorio has a number of famous names at the ready: Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, Rose Franken, Gertrude Stein, Lillian Hellman. She also lists a number of lesser-known contemporaries who "have forged through what has been a male-dominated craft to get their words in front of an audience," including Linda Eisenstein and Jamie Pacino. But her stylistic roots, she admits, are planted in mass media. "I'm a child of the original TV generation and have spent many more hours in front of the tube than studying a textbook. What I do appreciate about writing for the screen or for television is the economy of words, finding the nugget and focusing on the moment without a lot of extraneous dialogue."

That certainly seems to be what she's looking for in 10 Reasons Big Betty Is Stuck on the Side of the Road in a Little Pink Dress. With 10 skits and 17 characters, the cast of three moves through a dizzying array of costume changes and scenarios. Since the play was actually written by both her and co-author Dahlia Kaminsky, who each wrote five scenes apiece before molding them into the final product, the effect isn't one of structural coherence, but there's an endless supply of wickedly funny one-liners.

"It's a double-edged sword," she admits of her media-informed style, "because there's a lot in television that you have to weed out. . . . Media is such an influence on our society that it's important to remember that boobs don't make the world go 'round. I don't want to diminish men's work, but there needs to be room for another point of view. . . . But I think if we want to capture the attention of the sound-bite generation, we need to learn to be succinct. And keep up the pace. Even as one who loves the theater, I'd rather watch grass grow than sit through Chekhov."

Lorio acknowledges that in a town like Baltimore, with its small theatergoing population, there's a tendency to stick to Chekhov anyway. "Because we all compete for audience from a small pool of patrons, many times the decision is made to play it safe," she says. "And while I completely understand the economics of running a theater, one has to question where the next Arthur Miller comes from if small theaters get scared off from doing new works. . . . And the double edge is that while the programming is 'safe,' how do you inspire people to come to the theater to see the same ol', same ol'?

"It's true across the country," she says. "It's difficult to attract an audience when you're competing with television and the movies. I don't know. . . . Maybe it's just going to die out. They have to work harder to attract a younger audience. If younger people care what they're talking about, they'll come."

She may have had the younger generation in mind when pairing up with Dahlia Kaminsky, her collaborator on Big Betty. A University of Maryland, Baltimore County alum, Kaminsky has directed, acted, and written for a number of local companies, including Mobtown Players, Pussycat Theatre, and Creative Alliance. "She's not quite young enough to be my daughter," Lorio says. "But she's been in theater most of her life and she's got a good sense for what's going on out there." The partnership seems to be flourishing, and Lorio says she and Kaminsky are already teaming up on another effort, provisionally titled Dick, which is scheduled to premiere at Spotlighters Theatre in 2004.

Despite its flaws and small size, Lorio insists that, for new playwrights, Baltimore is the best-kept secret on the East Coast. Theaters and troupes like Spotlighters, Theatre Project, Arena Players, and Mobtown Players are willing to take risks, she says, and "when it fizzles, it's not a disaster. It gives new writers a chance to see if the audience is responding, or just checking their watches." For the moment, it's perfect. "But don't tell anybody, or our cost of living will skyrocket. "

Vagabond Players will perform PS Lorio's Missing Phil Friday, July 25, through Sunday, Aug. 10, as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. For more information, call Vagabond at (410) 563-9135 or visit www.baltplayfest.org.

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