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Home, Sour Home

Opening the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, a Pair of One-Acts Deals with Dark Intrusions into Domestic Life

Death Grip: Kim Reiss and Carlos Del Valle square off in Empires Fall.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/16/2004

Empires Fall by Mark Scharf; In My Tribe by Kimberley Lynne

At the Mobtown Theater through June 27

Mobtown Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Suite 114, (410) 467-3057,

Getting mugged or sexually harassed on a public street is horrible. Having these crimes invade your very home is horrible squared. The pair of plays (billed as one-acts but each more substantial than that description suggests) that kick-start the 23rd annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival at the Mobtown Theater both deal with danger and darkness crashing into the security of home and hearth, but they present in-house horrors in decidedly different ways. Empires Fall concerns straight-ahead gun-totin' violence and its aftermath, while In My Tribe serves up a surreal, sexually charged descent into murderous madness. Both plays demonstrate some keen writing and are given largely taut productions and performances. These are watchable works, though both suffer from narrative flaws that keep them from being all they could be.

In Empire Falls, the curtain opens on Michele (Kim Reiss) and Keith (Chris Carver), a shiny yuppie couple planning their wedding--one, it turns out, they're largely financing by selling weed out of their apartment. A quiet night is shattered when Michelle unwittingly opens the door on a gun-brandishing thug (a mostly menacing Carlos Del Valle) who proceeds to steal their stash. Before he leaves, he pours psychological salt in the couple's wounds: He subjects Michelle to some gun-barrel flirtation and then tells her, "Your man ain't shit."

Such a shared trauma should pull the pair tighter together, but playwright Mark Scharf is exploring the ways in which exposure to fight-or-flight savagery can seed self-doubt and cause cracks in relationships. Soon Keith is questioning his manhood (no thanks to Michelle's barbs) and Michelle is getting the guilts for opening the door to the mess.

The problem with this psychodrama is that the Keith/Michelle pairing seems hollow from the get-go. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Michelle is a bitch. Sure, her lines like, "The sooner you give me what I want, the happier we will be," can be read as playfulness, but the cumulative effect of her carping (playful or otherwise) and Keith's mixed-bag reaction to it (from meany to weenie) portends an empire destined to crumble sans outside forces. Despite the pair's numerous kisses and hugs, there's just no chemistry between them. And one of the thug's final comments leaves you curious as to his ultimate assessment of Keith. Does he respect him for his willingness to become an "animal" and fight back, or his unwillingness to do so? This well-paced show has its moments to be sure--even a few laughs--but it needs a firmer purpose and clearer message.

Kimberly Lynne's In My Tribe takes us into the home (in beautiful Catonsville, we're told) of Belinda Marx (Marianne Angelella), a thirtysomething single gal who's working the party circuit with increased weariness. She's perfectly positioned for phone call from an anonymous man (a creepy Mark Scharf--yes, Empire's playwright) who mixes nuggets of dead-on knowledge about her past ("You say you don't like mint juleps because you don't like leaves in your whiskey") with flattery and overt sexual shock-talk.

Belinda becomes hooked, intrigued more when she learns the caller is Max Mustardseed, a co-worker from years past she once had an unconsummated crush on. Flattered, lonely, vulnerable, what have you--she's willing to overlook (underhear?) creepy lines like, "You never told me how long your tongue is," together with Max's repeated offers to lick her toes and his not-so-subtle references to moving in.

While working his cell-phone cat-and-mouse game, we see him lounging on a narrow mattress on the other side of her living room, bathed in creep-boosting green light. And while all this is going on, a black-clad man (Jesse Swain) is moving around the perimeter of Belinda's home stealing her personal effects. Metaphorically she's losing herself. When even a lamp is snatched away (ending up on Max's side of the phone line) it's easy to view her as so caught up in his oily trap that she loses her ability to "see" what really is happening. The light of reason is lost.

But just as this stalker/talker tale is getting suspenseful and disturbing, Lynne overloads her tale with plot-clogging backstory. We meet Belinda's pal Kate Sears (Kate Hinkle) and learn of a post-date rape/murder and a "bad thing" Belinda might have done to her own sister. And the black-clad thief soon gets a name and a motivation. Theatrical momentum becomes mired in Too Much Tale. Things get confusing and even a tad silly. The metaphors, meanwhile, move into tomfoolery mode, with the sudden appearance of lacrosse sticks in Belinda's apartment, followed by the sudden appearance of spears. You can read these prop pop-ups to mark Belinda's darkening relations with Max--moving from sport to war. But in a so-called one-act, it all reads like overload.

Problematic though it proves to be, like its predecessor, Tribe keeps you watching. It helps that Marianne Angelella hands in the night's top performance. Like many festival scribes before her, Lynne simply needs to learn that less is more.

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