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Modern Love

Three Women Writers Try to Tame the Chaos of Relationships

Gettin' Busy Signal: Melainie Eifert and Richard Peck try to dial up some excitement in P.S. Lorio's Modern Games.

By John Barry | Posted 3/26/2003

Baltimore Women Playwrights Showcase

If love is a game, the Baltimore Women Playwrights Showcase reminds us that, in the 21st century, it's an old game with new rules. Or, as local playwright P.S. Lorio puts it, although we haven't changed all that much, "we've gotten a lot better and more inventive at screwing each other." In this evening of two one-acts (Modern Games and Boy Meets Girl . . . Meets Boy . . . Meets Girl, etc. ) and one two-act (Out of His Mind), local playwrights cover the trifecta of modern relationships: dating, dialing, and dreaming. Some characters know all the right lines. Others use phone sex to keep their marriage going. And one just uses his imagination.

These plays don't all fit neatly under the same roof. Boy Meets Girl looks a little like Samuel Beckett, not to press the comparison too deeply. Modern Games, meanwhile, is a clever half-hour skit that wouldn't do badly on Saturday Night Live. And Out of His Mind pays tribute to Luigi Pirandello. But they're all light comedies, and they all seem to be pressing for an answer to the age-old question: Who's in control here and who's getting screwed?

The first performance, Boy Meets Girl . . ., by Rosemary Toohey, finds its material in the clichés of romantic entanglements. Four characters start off at the four corners of the stage and then, in rapid succession, begin to belabor one another with the lines that seem to pop up in every modern relationship: "I like you. Do you like me?" "I need time." "So what do we really mean?" "I'm not ready for this yet." Ad infinitum.

As the two couples start barreling though the repertoire of commitment anxieties and breakups, rebounds, and ripostes, they start swapping partners until finally the boys are meeting the boys and the girls are meeting the girls. The players switch partners and throw out their lines so quickly that they don't have enough time to figure out who they're talking to or what they want in the first place. The scenario is limited, but Toohey's cleverly orchestrated dialogue may manage to fast-forward a few audience members through a lifetime of doomed relationships.

P.S. Lorio's one-act, Modern Games, is a bit more conventional, with a clever conceit: A couple decides to take up phone sex with each other to save their relationship. They're phone-sex virgins, and it shows: When the woman stubs her toe, the man thinks she's having an orgasm; when she thinks he's talking dirty, he's reading a newspaper. They're trying to do it according to the gospel of Oprah, but in the end, it's clear that they have no intention of sticking to the rules. It's a premise with a lot of potential, and it gives the somewhat nerdy husband and his frumpy wife plenty of room to improvise. Now that they're miles apart, they can put their desires and their relationships in black boxes: They can talk dirty, cheat on one another, and clip their nails all at once. They can say things they wouldn't normally say; they also have the chance to fake sex as it's never been faked before.

Toward the beginning of Marilyn Otis' Out of His Mind, there's a quote from Pirandello: "When a character is born, it creates its own independence." In this extended two-act, a hassled novelist is trying to make deadline on a thriller. But as he struggles to complete his manuscript, he finds himself contending with real women who have lodged themselves in his artistic imagination: Hilda Grump (Ina Hamburger) is an agent, Liz Snoot (Debbie Bennett) is an old flame, and Penny Pincher (Tiffany James) is a compulsive 18-year-old cheerleader. They are all contending for roles as the romantic interest in his mystery novel.

In this game, Malcom Cox (Jed Duvall) is the hapless referee. He's a hassled obsessive who tries desperately to rein in his fertile imagination. The problem is, he's not much of a writer, and he's even worse at directing traffic. The result is a little chaotic, and although the performance calls on Pirandello's open staging style, the play gets a little bogged down in Malcolm's writerly imagination. Pirandello's director would have handled things with a little more panache; Malcolm is literally caught in the middle of an extended first draft.

Characters are certainly born in this inventive comedy, but they could use a bit more independence. Penny and Liz are colorful, but their connection to Malcolm is a bit indeterminate. Hilda's relationship with Malcolm has some fascinating overtones: She's his mentor, dominatrix, agent, and mother. Molly (Stephanie Lynn Williams), in the end, is probably most appealing as the writer's long-suffering wife and protector. But by the end of the play, Malcolm is more of an anchor or a police officer than a liberator of these figures, and he spends much of his time running desperately from one end of the stage to the next, trying to keep his women apart.

All told, the 10-person Spotlighters ensemble does these Baltimore playwrights proud. Boy Meets Girl . . . is a tightrope walk of split-second timing; Omar Robinson, Melainie Eifert, Richard Peck, and Stephanie Lynn Williams handle it skillfully. Peck and Eifert also deliver with Modern Games, leaving the jokes to the writer, and concentrating on turning their enigmatically named personas--A and B--into real characters. The role of Malcolm Cox in Out of His Mind, meanwhile, is imposing and a little unfocused, but Jed Duvall negotiates it admirably with stamina and enthusiasm. The Best Performer Award, however, goes to Ina Hamburger, who turns Hilda into a Wagnerian Agent from hell with a soft spot for her muddled client, maybe the most fitting proof that the rules have indeed changed.

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