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March 4, 2008

The 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays

Great falls: Photo by Harlan Taylor Halley Gross and Tom Nelis in “Great Falls” by Lee Blessing, part of the 32nd Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre‘Great Falls’ does, but not greatly (Actors Theatre presents Lee Blessing’s “Great Falls” through March 30. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.)The first play in this year’s Humana Festival, Lee Blessing’s “Great Falls,” is well crafted and well played. It’s refreshing to watch a production where the expository dialogue is sprinkled throughout and not ham-fistedly delivered in an opening monologue. Disappointingly, though, there’s little substance beneath the veneer. It feels more like we’re watching a playwright’s exercise than witnessing the unveiling of a new entry into the American canon of great plays. Last year’s brilliant festival opener, Craig Wright’s “The Unseen,” was set in a prison where two men were free in their minds. In “Great Falls,” the Bingham becomes an open road brimming with possibilities, yet the two characters are imprisoned in their own skins. Unlike the larger-than-life “The Unseen,” Blessing doles out a skimpy slice of Lifetime-esque life about two people who never connect with each other or the audience. Blessing takes on weighty, “hot-button” social issues with no apparent understanding. His handling of such subjects as rape, incest, STDs and abortion simply doesn’t ring true. Blessing’s women (one of whom is unseen) are one-dimensional objects whose sole purpose is to make middle-aged Monkey Man (Tom Nelis) pay for being a normal heterosexual male. The female lead (Halley Gross) is even named “Bitch.” Charming. How many soap opera melodramas have we all seen in which people do dumb, inexplicable things, leaving us smiting our foreheads and screaming, “No! Why would she do that?” The barely legal Bitch constantly does these things, from the moment she gets into a car with her creepy stepfather, who seems determined to reenact “Lolita“ as an asexual power trip. Bitch, a bitter, man-hating teen, writes Sylvia Plath-like poetry that stirs her kidnapper, a successful novelist. Gross inhabits this sorry creature completely like a zoned-out Christina Ricci, and her transformation from “cold wounded child” to “(relatively) normal woman” is subtly played. Nelis, a founding member of the SITI Company, is outstanding as the self-absorbed Monkey Man, oblivious to his stepdaughter‘s needs. Nelis’ portrayal of Monkey Man’s reptilian meltdown when we see him learn his true view of women, especially those who have been molested, is unforgettably chilling. Both actors are superb. They move like dancers while changing clothes effortlessly, skirting around the sexual tension between their characters. At one point, Bitch bemoans the fact that men always consider her their business. “That’s what my boyfriend thought. That’s what his friend thought. So did his friend’s friend. So did Dad. I was all their business — every part of me,” she screams. This speech could ironically apply to Blessing, with his misguided and misogynistic take on women’s issues. I left the theater unmoved and embarrassed that this play won the top billing for this esteemed festival. —Sherry Deatrick•••‘Becky’ is witty, but yes, she’s overdressed(Actors Theatre presents Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” through March 30. Directed by Peter DuBois. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.)Several years ago, the trend of snappy dialogue was literally on everybody’s tongue in the world of sitcom television. The problem was that writers too often relied on bad puns self-deprecatingly delivered to garner laughs. Here’s a cure for the bad taste that obnoxious movement left in your mouth: “Becky Shaw,” the second selection at this year’s Humana Festival, is chockfull of rapid-fire conversation that is, honest to goodness, hilarious. That doesn’t mean Gina Gionfriddo’s play is without fault; it just means the weaknesses are much more palatable. Suzanna (Mia Barron) and Max (David Wilson Barnes) have a brother/sister relationship, except they aren’t actually related, which naturally complicates matters. A whirlwind courtship leaves Suzanna married to Andrew (Davis Duffield), Max’s polar opposite. The couple sets Max up with Andrew’s coworker, Becky Shaw (Annie Parisse), and the emotional games commence. A quick pace is established from the get-go. The first scene lags near the end because of the extended exposition between Max and Suzanna, and the second scene is so far removed from the first that it is jarring. A jumble of information is hurriedly thrown at the audience, which left me wondering if Gionfriddo was at a loss for how to otherwise communicate it … or if it’s even necessary. Suffice to say a smoother transition is needed. The story absorbs right up to the final scene. Corralling all the characters into the action feels like a last-ditch resort, and the realization hits that there will be no payoff. The conundrum of the title character is representative of the problem with the play at large: The audience is successfully led to wonder about this strangely compelling woman, and when she doesn’t live up to the anticipation built, it feels cheated. Gionfriddo creates enormous expectations, but in the end, fails to fully deliver. Trimming some fat would partially alleviate these problems. Although Janis Dardaris is great as Suzanna’s mother, her storyline feels extraneous and detracts from the far more interesting dynamic between the couples. I would be remiss in not mentioning Zan Sawyer-Dailey’s inspired casting and the superb performances by the cast. If I didn’t know better, I would guess Gionfriddo penned these roles with these exact actors in mind. Gionfriddo is obviously a master of writing relationships and dialogue. Nuances in the characters’ connections abound, and their conversations are intricately woven. She needs editing, but “Becky Shaw” isn’t likely to disappear. She’s pretty persistent. —Rebecca Haithcoat