Arts » Performing Arts

Cutthroat Everyman

Plus, there's not much in Egypt

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Whether the action is set along Hollywood Boulevard or Broadway, David Mamet takes a certain amount of satisfaction in pushing his audience beyond their cushy comfort zones. The infamous scatology is merely the salt in the water when we suddenly find ourselves swimming among the sharks – the con artists, the cheats, the brutes and the thieves in Mamet's lowlife disscetions of American vitality and corruption.

Edmond, now entering its third week at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, is a standout even among Mamet's slimy, dog-eat-dog descents. Perhaps answering the criticism that there were no good people in American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, or Speed-the-Plow, Mamet makes this title character uncomfortably like one of us: complacent, careful about his pennies, yet prime meat for hustlers when he abandons the suburbs for the streets.

The predators Edmond learns his lessons from are also sleazier than Mamet's usual rogues. Our hero must hone his negotiating skills with a whore, an exotic dancer, a pimp, and a pawn shop appraiser. In the pawn shop (a sentimental journey back to the setting of Mamet's American Buffalo), Edmond makes the pivotal decision of his life. Instead of just pawning his wedding ring for cash, he walks out with a military knife.

What sends Edmond off on his odyssey couldn't be more American, a vague discontent leading to a fevered pursuit of happiness. At a certain point, Edmond's unfocused desires are reconstituted into an exhilaration of self-discovery. While we're discovering Edmond's newfound powers, we begin to suspect that he has broken free from the fetters of civilized living in a way he can't sustain.

Things get messy -- leading to lessons, humiliations, and reconciliations that are as real as they as are appalling.

CAST, with its trademark environmental staging, keeps it realer than usual. You're likely to meet the bargirl in the show, Catherine Howard, before the show at the bar. Or you'll be greeted in that same lobby vicinity by Tania Kelly, who plays the high-priced, don't-take-no-credit-cards whore. Her pre-show greeting to me had nothing to do with my review of her recent triumph as Vixen in the risque Reindeer Monologues. Not in that skimpy excuse for a dress.

Glenn Hutchinson is uncharacteristically visceral as Edmond. A timely breakthrough, for Edmond's atavism is an intersection of moment and temperament outside of logic, an arc we only encounter in action movies or Jack London. Hutchinson makes it believable by immersing himself in the moment, and the creative team, led by director Michael Simmons, keeps the action flowing nearly as smoothly as a movie.

The stage itself revolves, and Hutchinson's supporting players literally come at him from all four points on the compass, most of them in multiple roles. Corlis Hayes traverses the widest range, dealing cards as a fortuneteller when we enter the CAST boxagon, disrobing soon afterwards as the peepshow cutie, and then becoming a timorous woman on the subway ñ an ironic projection of the conventionality Edmond has abandoned.

Jonavan Adams and James Lee Walker, the tag team from last year's Topdog/Underdog, are just as impressive dealing cards, pimping, preaching or teaching Edmond the facts of prison life. Christopher Hull's notable roles range from pawnshop appraiser to police interrogator to production lighting design, and Jennifer Barnette makes an auspicious debut as Glenna, the aspiring actress who refuses to think of herself as a waitress.

Might have worked out for her if she'd served Edmond one less cup of coffee.

OK, so the script for the stage adaptation of Clyde Edgerton's Walking Across Egypt isn't nearly as tight as Mamet's. Nor do the set, lighting and costumes at Theatre Charlotte have the same snap and polish. But the ensemble work inside the Queens Road barn is equally fine.

Annette Gill stars as Mattie Rigsbee, an elderly church-going matron whose country cooking and baking keep her empty nest from staying empty. Dropping by for a regular bite are her two children and their beaus, her older sister Pearl, plus the next-door neighbors, paranoid Alora and her trigger-happy husband Finner.

The pot really begins to boil when a stray dog camps at Mattie's door. Edgerton strings this visitor to a comedy parade that includes a dogcatcher, the dogcatcher's delinquent nephew, the delinquent's girlfriend and a gaggle of guests from the local church and constabulary. My feeling is that the fun would multiply as dishes and silverware piled up on the table, migrated to the sink, made their way to the cupboard and recommenced their life cycles.

But director Dennis Delamar takes a severely minimalist route. Mattie and her neighbors mime the food, the dishes, the utensils, the table, the sink, the stove and even the napkins and towels. There's really not much that set designer Jim Gloster can put onstage when either Delamar or a stingy Theatre Charlotte budget won't even allow a bare cupboard.

Delamar did have an embarrassment of riches at auditions. Polly Adkins or Ginger Heath would have made admirable Matties, I'm sure, but Adkins' turn as Alora is hoot and Heath is as finely detailed and nuanced as I've ever seen her as Pearl.

I love Jim Smith as the sweet awkward dogcatcher, Lamar, almost as much as I love Gill's Mattie, which is a great deal. Andrew Clark as Wesley has that same lovable hellion gene as his Uncle Lamar, with just enough rusticated Huck Finn ignorance to honestly believe that Mattie might be his grandmaw. Adorably pathetic -- like that wormy pup at the pound.

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