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“Are you…?” she haltingly asks the audience for the Theater Alliance’s You Are Here, as the lights go down at the H Street Playhouse.
“Am I…?” she begins again, still hovering in the shadows at the side of the stage. Noting the spotlit chair that is its only furniture, she wonders, “Is that for me?”
She walks over and sits, looks out at the audience expectantly, but is still not sure how to proceed.
“Am I supposed to…?” She looks down at what she’s holding in her hands and then says, almost with relief, “This is my bottle of sand.”
That, at least, is sure. A starting point. The bottle of sand represents to Alison—who is played with what ends up seeming a ferocious fragility by Jennifer Mendenhall—a connection with the blood and sweat of the ancient civilizations that walked on it, with life, with time, with the very Earth itself. It’s a touchstone—a touchsand, if you will—that anchors her.
“I’ve been a little out of touch,” she confides. But tonight she’s hoping to be pithy, profound, and even poetic in telling us how she came to be the barefoot jumble of insecurities who stands before us. Hers is a tale involving starlets, directors, boyfriends, husbands, gigolos, sex, drugs, and improbable dreams. Having once been a magazine writer, Alison suspects that if she can just pull herself together, she can bring all of these elements alive for us. Still, this halting start is a harbinger of things to come. She begins in her own words, at her own pace, but the evening gets hijacked by her memories.
They are not, let’s note, always reliable. Much of what Alison says goes at first unchallenged—her collegiate fury at the insincere compliments of a “nice” classmate, her annoyance with a hyperanalytical psychoanalyst husband, her disbelief at the posturings of an airheaded actress. But as these folks materialize from the darkness to help her re-enact her story, playwright Daniel MacIvor has some of them resist Alison’s version of events. When she tries to be kind onstage to a feckless pal (a miscast but gamely callow Michael Russotto) to whom she was not kind in real life, he won’t go along. She hems and haws, but he just keeps repeating her cue until she utters the cruel put-down she actually said. And oddly, as she’s challenged, she becomes less hesitant, more certain of her bearings, more firmly grounded.
Having begun by treating You Are Here as a one-woman show—albeit one with a dozen auxiliary characters—the playwright seems on surest ground himself when he has Alison talking directly to the audience. His leading lady is often defensive when interacting with her onstage associates, but she’s clear as can be about her thought processes (“I should be careful, in a place like this, about hyperbole and metaphor”) when editing her life for the crowd out front. Acknowledging the house allows her to philosophize (“Retrospect is everything”) and to chase ideas wherever they lead. It also gives Gregg Henry’s evocatively austere staging some of its choicest visual moments: Alison talking of a troubled pregnancy as beet juice pools on the floor at her feet, or slipping offstage when events take a turn for the worse, as if she might gain perspective by joining us on the other side of the footlights. Mendenhall’s Alison is at her best when she’s most insistently living in the theatricality of You Are Here. When she’s drawn into dialogue, she’s more circumspect.
Which puts the other cast members at something of a disadvantage. If they’re there only as foils for a heroine who is forever taking us into her confidence, how are they to make an impression? A few manage. Brian Hemmingsen is briskly amusing as a peremptory film director, whether he’s reducing Alison to tears, sweet-talking her in the bedroom, or short-circuiting the objections of a born-again thespian (Alexander Strain) who balks at playing a blowjob scene in a church. And Kathleen Coons illustrates a vapid ingénue’s imbecility with some deliciously blank stares.
Tony Cisek’s minimalist, black-on-black setting and John Burkland’s hard-edged lighting effects are sure assets too, even as You Are Here is losing its way toward the end of the evening. The life being bared is hardly conventional, but it turns out to be less intriguing than it initially seemed. And for all its cleverness about weaving together metaphor, moviemaking, and bottles of sand, so does the play.
Another night, another determinedly spare space (also painted black, with minimal accouterments), and two more actors directly addressing the audience. In Save the Leopard, TJ Edwards’ socially conscious dramedy about opposites who attract, Leo and Diana spend nearly as much stage time narrating their relationship into existence as they do interacting. Happily, both they and the play they inhabit are engaging. But when exactly did the theatrical aside leap from soliloquizing parenthetical to central storytelling device? (Must go back at least as far as the ’50s, because there it was again this weekend, in The Chairs at Round House.)
Well, never mind. When Leo (Seth Alcorn) and Diana (Alison Weisgall) first meet, on a blind date at a bookstore, Leo’s a bohemian community-college dropout who says he’s “searching for my calling,” and Diana’s an overachieving Wesleyan grad with an enormous trust fund. She immediately decides he needs saving, and when she notices him glancing at a book about leopards in the nature section, she mentions that his name is from the same root.
He decides this is serendipity—actually, she teaches him the word “serendipity,” then encourages him to decide that that’s what he’s experiencing—and since he is directionless enough to head pretty much anywhere he’s pointed, he’s soon out canvassing for the World Animal Fund. When he and Diana meet up a bit later, she helps him hone his fundraising pitch (she’s a communications strategist); not long after that, she’s bailing him out of jail (he’s thrown sludge on her expensive leopard-skin coat), and before you can say “plot contrivance,” they’re jointly running the Save the Leopard Foundation.
As romances go, theirs is not love at first, second, or even third sight, but it is enough to hang a decent sparring contest on, and that’s what Edwards (who hails from D.C. and has won a couple of Helen Hayes Awards in his time) has done. He’s made Diana so single-mindedly relentless about turning Leo into a corporate type, and so manipulative in pursuit of her own career goals, that you may suspect the playwright of having stacked his battle of the sexes unfairly. But if Edwards has made dim, well-meaning Leo easier to like at first, he’s also made him something of a ticking time bomb, so passionate about saving leopards from extinction that he can even endorse terror as an “effective communications strategy.”
So OK, maybe these two deserve each other. Certainly they talk the same lingo, once Leo has internalized Diana’s “Work with bastards, play like a bastard” rubrics and gone back to school so he can fight her on her own terms. Wised up to her money-trumps-everything worldview, he’s not nearly as pliable as he was in his bohemian days. “You don’t treat me like a lover or even a friend,” he bellows. “You treat me like an impact group.” And indeed she does.
With his shaggy hair, sneakers, and cargo pants, Alcorn’s Leo is lumpen in all the right proletarian ways, while Weisgall’s Diana, trimly fetching in red silk blouse, gray slacks, and heels, is a deft portrait of a career woman in overdrive. Spooky Action Theater’s production, staged with brisk efficiency by Richard Henrich, sends them racing around the Flashpoint Gallery’s tiny stage, even as the playwright—whose snappy dialogue makes the leopard factoids they bandy about sound remarkably like plausible conversation—sends them racing from the halls of the United Nations to the wilds of Afghanistan. You may emerge from the evening feeling you know more about big-cat mortality rates than you do about the mysterious attraction between Leo and Diana, but as the claw- and fang-baring advocates restlessly prowl the stage, they’re certainly watchable. CP