Opening Nights

I AM AN ARTIST

Consolidated Works; ends Sat., Nov. 22

Here's what I know: The first act of writer/director Greg Lundgren's musings on Truth and Art is the most infuriatingly amateurish hour onstage I've witnessed in quite some time. Here's what I hope: As a riff on "Fraud," the theme of ConWorks' current multimedia series, wily Lundgren has made an intentionally appalling piece of theater as some kind of ironic challenge to passive audiences. Here's why I can't be sure: I took that challenge and left at the first intermission.

Lundgren, a theater neophyte whose savvy irreverence made his now-defunct gallery Vital 5 a standout, is no idiot, and neither is executive producer and ConWorks head honcho Matthew Richter. Both of them may well be pulling an elaborate hoax with this total bunk. That's the only plausible explanation for Richter's program notes, which call theater a "dying form" and praise Lundgren for producing theater made by people who are free of "the trappings of theater training." But even if it is a sly setup to a tremendous joke, sorry, the punch line was just too far away for me to wait.

The evening begins with some terrorist guy in a ski mask lip-synching Lundgren's opening remarks. Next, the entrance of CalArts professor Dean VanDine (Jed Dunkerly) is the cue for bad nonactors seated in the audience to improvise being students harassing him about why he quit his famous painting career. This gives VanDine the chance to spout off about "the corruption of self-expression" and define Art as "the piss you hold back" (or something like that). Next, we're off to hang with the students, who are just kickin' it and sharing some edgy philosophy in a gallery filled with ironic slogan paintings ("This would look great above your couch"). This gives the nonactors a chance to act slouchy and be all, like, you know, whatever and fuck this and talk about selling out and shit like that (harsh!). Then fictitious MacArthur Grant recipient Judy Piper (Nicole Grant, the worst of the nonactors playing wanky art students) heads to Phoenix, where she ends up in another ironic gallerypaintings of dogs, fawned over by tacky dog loversbefore accidentally killing a photographer who tries to put the make on her. Then it's the first intermission, giving aghast audience members who no longer care whether this is a joke the chance to flee.

To all those involved in the production: Bravo if this was a risky 60-minute setup for cunningly pulling the rug right out from under an audience. To all those considering attending: Sixty minutes can be a long, long time. STEVE WIECKING

THE HOUSE OF YES

Theater Schmeater; ends Sun., Dec. 7

In most productions of Wendy MacLeod's sharp-tongued tragicomedypart American Beauty, part Oedipus Rexthe show belongs to Jackie-O. Besides dressing like JFK's wife, Jackie has other issues: self-diagnosed insanity; an ominous attachment to her brother Marty (Patrick Meehan); undisguised disdain for her other brother, Anthony (Lance Park); and an affinity for assassination kink. When Jackie "welcomes" Marty and his fiancée, Lesly (Corey Quigley), into the family home for Thanksgiving dinner, we know to be ill at ease.

Erin Knight's performance successfully explores the biggest question surrounding Jackieis she really crazy, or just rich, aloof, and spoiled?but the emotional core of the character never quite comes into focus enough to make her relationship with Marty as wrenching as it ought to be. Amidst the histrionics, Quigley's quiet performance as Lesly is the one to really watch. Lesly's affection for Marty courageously counters his family's nihilism with the faint hope of lasting love. She enters like a working-class Pollyanna, but as Quigley develops the character, we come to see her for what she really isconfused and touchingly capable of sin. Her last-ditch effort to wrest Marty from the strangling arms of his family really shines; the pair's idealized recollection of a Sunday morning says as much about the future they could have together as it does about their past.

The rest of the ensemble delivers in most of the show's key scenes. Lance Park is appropriately blank as Anthony, a seeming simpleton who holds some surprises beneath his puppy-dog demeanor. On the other end of the spectrum, Alyson Scadron-Wattles overenunciates riotously as Mrs. Pascal, the supercilious matriarch who pulls any strings she can to keep her fucked-up family together.

When the play's interlocking parts click tragically into place, the remaining characters unite in a moment of pain and loss when the feelings they've been disguising emerge too late. No matter how many unpleasant memories your trip home for Thanksgiving washes up, be grateful you're not as far gone as Marty Pascal, whose vain attempt to swim toward a brighter future falls victim to the undertow of a terrible past. NEAL SCHINDLER

ABSTRACT EXPRESSION

Richard Hugo House; ends Sun., Nov. 23

"Some people are rich, some people are poor, and the poor have less money," wealthy Sylvia (Helena De Crespo) casually chirps. "Now why is that news?" Playwright Theresa Rebeck doesn't do the most incisive job of answering that questionyou could boil the entire evening down to the not exactly earth-shattering notion that everything's relativebut her concern in even asking it has its rewards and is bolstered by a mostly sturdy production from Mirror Stage Company.

A society dinner provided the milieu for Omnium-Gatherum, another contemplative zeitgeist-chaser that Rebeck co-authored (and which recently had a run at ACT), and it sets the ruminations in motion here, too. While hostess Sylvia offers her opinions on the poor, gallery owner and future daughter-in-law Lillian (Susanna Wilson) decides to go right to the source by asking Jenny (Retha Tinker), their server, what it's really like. This results in the revelation that Jenny's father, Mac (Glenn Guhr), is a faded painter long ago demolished by a review from Lillian's art critic dad, a fact that eventually leads to the sodden, destructive Mac's unfortunate "comeback" and Jenny's potential affair with Eugene (Adam Twiss), Lillian's intrigued and guilt-ridden betrothed.

You couldn't call Rebeck's writing delicate. The script is perilously concerned with you-never-loved-me conflicts made up of bits of dramatic shorthand from any number of other kitchen-sink dramas: "You're my sister, and I love you," says Jenny's embittered, estranged brother Willie (Skot Kurruk, nicely playing the unplayable) in his first scene. The playwright's attempt at peering into the life of Mac's gentle African-American neighbor Charlie (Cecil Luellen) and Charlie's angry ex-con nephew (Stan Shields) is perhaps also a little too familiar. And Rebeck ends up ennobling the poor even more than I suspect the poor would care to be ennobled.

An emphatic, ever-smiling Tinker is all wrong as the nervy Jennyand neither she nor director Suzanne M. Cohen are able to illuminate the volatile, mercurial bond between Jenny and Mac (Guhr's clumsy performance as her elusive father is a hindrance, too). But Cohen elsewhere fills Craig Wollam's open, adroit set with real feeling, and everyone else is just right: Fluttery De Crespo nearly steals the show, Luellen fleshes Charlie out to warm dimensions, and Wilson's ambitious art connoisseur is crisp and true.

Yes, money, as it turns out, doesn't bring happiness, but when everything's working, Rebeck's simple, impassioned truisms still have an effect on you. At their best, her play and this classy production present recognizably fallible human beings, divertingly asking us to determine for ourselves what we find of real value in this world. S.W.

THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE

Freehold's East Hall Theater; ends Sat., Dec. 6

Few companies handle complications as cleanly as theater simple; they can smooth out complex narratives without losing the depth and breadth of a piece. (I can't imagine any other small local troupe so neatly accomplishing what the simple-tons did with Mikhail Bulgakov's labyrinthine political fantasia The Master and Margarita a few seasons ago.) I was somewhat disappointed, then, with simple's take on Brecht's epic of love and war: A bit of patience with it will bring you some pleasure, but it's otherwise oddly lacking the company's trademark pizzazz with dense material.

The piece feels lumpy here and distinctly marred in tone. The story should be relatively straightforward: In the prologue, two sides of feuding Soviet peasants dispute the use of a valley's land post-World War II; they soon come to terms with a decision after sharing an 18th-century parable in which two women claim motherhood of a beloved child. Director Susanna Burney has the ensemble immediately caught in a muddle between reverence and modernity: Llysa Holland is putting great weight into every vintage nod of her babushka; others are handling the Russian formality as though they were chatting during a particularly somber intermission (the capable Andrew Litzky seems to be splitting the difference and comes closest to how the evening should sound). Both approaches are far too deliberate, and when Burney has narrator Meg Savlov thumping her chest and flinging her arms open wide to announce the play-within-a-play, the whole thing begins to seem distressingly posed and precious.

The production does, occasionally, find its footing once it latches onto the inexorable pull of the parable. During a period of civil strife, Grusha (Monique Kleinhans) rescues the abandoned child of the executed governor, fleeing with him and encountering several villagers who are afraid to harbor the the now-hunted infant. Kleinhans could use some grit, and the entire ensemble could stand to up the ante in its depictions of debilitating human fear, but the material here still has a primal tug that can catch you by surprise. You find yourself rooting for Grusha's escape despite the fact that you know you're watching a narrative inside a narrative (which is, of course, the point). But the show too often gets caught up in its stylesome puppetry for supporting characters falls flat, as does the rather arch handling of the scattered songsmaking the production seem long and never quite as simple as it should be. S.W.

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