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One For The Dogs

But Bash is a smash

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We couldn't park in the Theatre Charlotte driveway when Nanci Hightower's new play, Heartworm, opened last week for a four-day engagement. Directed by Maggie Maes of the New York-based ActorsLoftTheatreCompany, the production has an off-Broadway rendezvous scheduled for 2004.

Besides the marketing savvy behind the scenes that filled those parking spaces, there are proven commercial ingredients in the script itself: enough character quirks to populate a George S. Kaufman comedy and elements of fantasy that might remind theatergoers of Prelude to a Kiss or Sylvia.

What the Worm sorely lacks is a coherent storyline, sharp writing and tight direction. To bridge the spark gap between reality and the supernatural (or the absurdly abnormal), we crave an emotionally valid sequence of actions and motivations. Otherwise, we sputter when the key turns the ignition onto the impossible.

Here we have a totally trusting Susie betrayed by her fiance Brian and her sister Martha on the eve of her wedding. After showing fleeting symptoms of turning into a pooch when Brian and Martha break the news, Sooze goes totally bowzers at the chapel where she has agreed to be maid of honor. There's never a dramatically convincing reason why our heroine undergoes this canine metamorphosis.

Once she's in her doggone predicament, there are no further complications. We witness a couple of glimmers of progress at a therapist's office in a scene designed, like the wedding, to end in Kaufman-styled havoc. But after apportioning their eccentricities, Hightower spends too little energy developing her characters. Poof, our heroine is cured -- and in a blissful new relationship!

With such a constraining development arc, Sheila Snow Proctor still gets to romp around the Queens Road stage and display an unsuspected gift for bestial comedy as Susie. Denied the power of speech for most of the evening, Proctor is forced to keep most of her formidable gifts under wraps.

Displaying a preternatural aptitude for panic as Martha, Virginia Spykerman never convinced me that Brian would throw Susie overboard. Nor did she reap a rich laugh harvest from Martha's salient quirk, an endless stream of pet names for her hubbie. As Brian, Marshall Case never convinced me that Susie should fret so extravagantly over losing him. Brian's quirk, if you're keeping score: at least one Britishism every two sentences.

Elizabeth Peterson-Vita was so awful as the sex-starved psychotherapist that she was almost tolerable. As the doctor's redneck receptionist, Linda Pritts Callahan came out with a different wig each time she entered -- and lame backwoods witticisms such as "I was more confused than a termite in a yoyo."

At the calm center of the action -- the object of the psychotherapist's obsession and Susie's trusty savior -- Jeff Johnston brought winning warmth to a comedy desperate for it. Elsewhere, incongruity reigned. Scene changes were choreographed with a couple of doo-wop dancers and cutesy toddler ballerinas. Brian Ruggaber's set changed smartly into different locales, but the fiery orange walls splotched with red were a constant irritant.

Down in SouthEnd, there's a curious -- and compelling -- mixture of violence and inertia in the BareBones Theatre Group's production of Bash. Subtitled "Latterday Plays," two of Neil LaBute's three one-acts actually evoke the atavism we associate with Mormons and their polygamous patriarchs. Although LaBute is himself a Mormon convert and a BYU grad, he doesn't serve up the fiery mix of piety and savagery you might expect.No, LaBute's antiheroes are most notable for their vacuousness, their superficiality and their self-absorption -- along with their consuming attraction to brutality. We aren't exposed to gratuitous displays of violence. On the contrary, the glib teetotaler who sacrificed his infant daughter confesses his crime at a Las Vegas hotel, inviting his listener to raid the minibar. The single mother who murdered her teenage son speaks in a near monotone to a cassette recorder at a police station.

Our two monologists hardly budge in their chairs while unfolding their horrors. Nor is our attention directed to Christianity as the root cause of their turpitude. It's the killers' paganism that's emphasized in the respective titles, "Iphigenia in Orem" and "Medea Redux." As the auteur of In the Company of Men, trophied at the 1997 Sundance Festival, LaBute was an easy target for New York critics when he unveiled his grim dramatic suite off-Broadway in 1999 with Calista Flockhart, another succulent target.

But saying that LaBute misfires when he depicts these violence-prone Mormons as avatars of human evil seems to misread the playwright's intent. These are sick puppies, and their disease is symptomatic of assimilating into the paganism that is America.

That's why I'm most impressed by "A Gaggle of Saints," the last of the three pieces when LaBute directed Bash in New York and the middle offering now (following the published script) at SPAC under James Yost's direction. In this betrothed couple, who jointly narrate without hearing one another, we're tossed into the giddy mainstream of American life.

No fewer than three meanings of "bash" figure prominently in the couple's blithe idyll. John and Sue bond during high school when he's out jogging at the athletic track and he bashes her former boyfriend's head into the cinders. There's another hint of Sue's bloodlust when John puts on his new Perry Ellis tuxedo for the first time and she notices a spot of blood on the shirt.

The two Boston College students are heading for a bash at the Plaza, the swanky hotel not far from fabled Central Park in Manhattan. It's in the park that John and two of his homophobic buddies do some midnight bashing in the men's room.

While Sue never learns of her fiance's Central Park escapade, her admiration for John somehow makes her complicit. If John and Sue aren't universal, they're disturbingly typical. In choosing Mark Scarboro and Dana Childs to portray the gushing lovebirds, Yost has added a blushing charm that is chillingly pristine -- and an aura of aristocratic amorality that subtly evokes the pagan heroes who preoccupy LaBute.

By comparison, Patrick Hurley in "Iphigenia" and Beth Pierce in "Medea" are more broken and quietly desperate. Both Hurley and Pierce give outstanding characterizations, and production values are handsome throughout the evening. Childs' collaboration with Sabrina Blanks on the set design is lurid and effective, nicely complemented by Hallie Gray's lighting. Yost picks exactly the right Billie Holiday cuts to accompany the latter-day Medea.

All in all, a superb production.

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