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Vincent and Gloria may be having marital problems in The Gingham Dog, but compared to the walking wounded who populate most Lanford Wilson plays, they’re doing just fine. Vincent’s an architect; Gloria’s a psychologist. They’re young, politically engaged, smart, and articulate. You’d never confuse them with the drifters and prostitutes of Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore or the pimps and junkies of Balm in Gilead.
But they’re hardly happy, partly because of the hand life’s dealt them and partly because of the way they’ve chosen to play it. A mixed-race couple—Vincent’s a white, liberal, good ol’ boy from Kentucky; Gloria’s a black intellectual from New York—they fell in love when ’60s civil-rights rhetoric emphasized equality and began drifting apart as the movement’s focus shifted to racial pride.
Their focus shifted too, as he became a company man, trying to do well, and she became an activist, determined to do good. And when Vincent’s firm began designing an urban-renewal project Gloria regards as a vertical slum, there was no longer any common ground on which their marriage could stand. After three years together—about half of it spent shouting—they’ve decided to call it quits, and as we meet them, they’re trying to do so with voices lowered. When there are disputes about who’ll take what as they pack up the apartment, each is usually urging the other to do the taking.
Still, tempers erupt and insults are hurled—some of them likely, many less so. The playwright would later learn to create characters who were more than mouthpieces, but in The Gingham Dog (the title comes from that children’s poem about the cat and the pup who ate each other up), Vincent and Gloria spend much of their time sounding like walking position papers. Even at that, they’re more persuasive than two subsidiary characters—a studiedly neutral neighbor (“I’m about as interested in mixed marriages as I am in mixed vegetables”) and Vincent’s openly racist sister—who are on hand exclusively to elicit exposition and who disappear once they have.
Jeremy Skidmore’s staging is at its most plausible when it’s at its quietest. He allows the first act’s explosions to get out of hand—insults bellowed that would be more convincingly spat—but then finds some compensating grace notes later. Deidra LaWan Starnes evokes Gloria’s pain so efficiently in a moment spent peering forlornly out the window that you wonder why the author has insisted on having her rail so fervently through two acts. Rick Hammerly’s flamboyantly effeminate neighbor acquires a bit of delicacy when called upon to comfort rather than cajole. And there’s a nicely understated moment in which Jason Stiles’ Vincent, having left for a cramped room uptown at the Y, near the office where he’s designing low-income homes, returns to his now empty Greenwich Village flat and marvels at how big it seems without furniture.
Though the evening has been attractively produced by African Continuum Theatre Company, it is tone-deaf about accents, which proves unhelpful in a story where regional differences are supposed to loom large. Wilson’s dialogue keeps harping on Vincent’s Kentucky upbringing and hangs a major plot point on the fact that his sister sounds like a hick. The author also ends his first act on a moment in which Gloria phones her estranged family for the first time in years and realizes she can no longer understand the little sister she left behind in the ’hood. All of which would doubtless play better if everyone didn’t sound like a D.C. native.
Renee Calarco’s Short Order Stories—set in a rural diner frequented by families on their way to upstate New York colleges—has been tootling along for 15 pleasantly unsurprising minutes of separation-anxiety comedy at Theatre on the Run, when the production pauses for a split second to take a startling left turn.
Well, a counterclockwise turn, really. A cook who has been preparing food and placing it atop a long counter grabs the counter and rolls it to the rear of the stage. A businessman father and his nebbishy son who’ve been sitting quietly at a booth move it to allow him to do this, then slide the booth sideways, while someone—the lesbian waitress, I think—repositions a door through which a Goth girl has stomped a few moments earlier after a fight with her parents at a table up front.
The parents, meanwhile, are whisking their table and chairs to where the counter once stood, and after a deftly choreographed little dance of furniture—the dimensions of the space and of the props make a simple pivot impossible—we find ourselves outside the diner looking in. A lighting shift then restarts the action, and the last few minutes of the scene we’ve just witnessed replay from a different perspective.
Goth daughter again stomps out, and climbs into a car where she’s soon joined by the boy from the booth. As their parents continue to spar inside the diner, the teenagers clamber from front car seat to back, slamming nonexistent doors, clumsily knocking hips, and delicately locking lips in the process. Finally, they reach an impasse, and the boy has little choice but to return to the restaurant, as the Goth girl and her parents depart. At which point another entertainingly clever bit of furniture choreography places the booth front and center, and with the boy and his father in the spotlight the action backs up a few minutes again.
Now, all this scenery shifting is merely incidental to the action—and note that it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if Charter Theatre, with more resources and a bigger stage at its disposal, had simply put the set on a turntable and twirled it. Still, the choreography is making what director Joe Calarco (the playwright’s brother) clearly regards as a salient point: That while each of the characters can see only a portion of the story, the audience gets to see it whole. And in fact, the various stories do interlock in ways that would probably never occur to the participants—the nurturing at the table finds an intriguing echo in the mentoring behind the counter and sets up reverberations with the hectoring in the booth. Philosophies of partnership, education, charity, and motherhood all take on different colorings depending on who’s doing the partnering, learning, giving, and mothering. And because the author has a good ear for life’s little dissonances—how a malapropism-prone ditz (“Lou says I’m too self-defecating”) might be every bit as amusing to a friend as she is annoying to a husband—there’s fun in the discoveries she and the characters make as the director sends their world spinning.
That said, there aren’t nearly enough discoveries in the writing to justify a two-hour running time. And despite some smart performances—Chris Stezin and Kerrie Seymour as loyal, got-your-back-behind-the-counter buddies, Andy Brownstein as a dad who always says the wrong thing, and especially Lee Mikeska Gardner as that surprisingly affecting ditz—by the time the playwright is marshaling cancer and 9/11 tragedy to up the emotional ante, it will take more than directorial quick-stepping to keep the evening’s disparate plot strands from unraveling.CP