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Forgive me if I daydream while writing this, but I feel I should take a cue from the playwrights whose works I’ve been encountering lately. I spent my weekend watching dramedies in which the most vibrant onstage characters were technically not therephysically present, but only as walking, talking fantasies of the protagonists. Oddly enough, being mere phantoms didn’t keep them from driving action, determining plot arcs, and otherwise dominating proceedings to which you’d think they’d be at best peripheral.
In MetroStage’s East Coast premiere of David Gow’s Bea’s Niece, it’s Bea who shows up, fully formed in the person of actress Susan Ross but visible only to her addled niece, who uses her as a touchstone in a battle with clinical depression. In the Actors’ Theatre of Washington’s production of Jordan Beswick’s The F Word, the hero’s homophobic sister must nag from the sidelines about the child he’s co-parenting with a lesbian friendthe two siblings haven’t actually spoken for years, and he’s imagining what she might say if he got up the courage to tell her.
Note that both Bea and Cindy, residing entirely in the fantasies of others, are more constructs than charactersdevices that permit their respective authors to have protagonists muse, ruminate, consider, cogitate, and talk aloud to themselves without actually soliloquizing. This is all very Six Feet Under-ish, but it’s also a dramatic dodgeif there’s no real interaction during these encounters, then nothing’s being either risked or decidedwhich means the playwright is essentially vamping until the character is ready to act. In television, which is all vamping, that’s fine; in theater, it’s a bit more problematic.
Witness Bea’s Niece, in which Anne (Helen Hedman), a depressed novelist who has been committed to a mental ward after shredding all of a bookstore’s copies of her own books, conjures not just her geographically distant aunt but also her dead husband (Tom Kearney) to keep her company at the asylum. For dramatic purposes, she might more profitably spend time talking to the doctor (Michelle Shupe) who had her committed, who is right in front of her, wondering why she persists in avoiding the real world. The answer to that question is the crux of the playand is plenty dramatic when revealed. But the time spent with Beawho’s one of those putatively endearing life forces who can say “The necessities for being a lady are scotch, a gun, and opium” without sounding overly world-wearyis essentially filler.
Jessica Kubzansky’s modestly inventive staging handles the interaction between figments of Anne’s imagination and more earthbound characters unfussily and has graceful segues out of realism, particularly in a suicide sequence that blends traditional Jewish ritual with modern medical equipment. But she’s allowed her actors to adopt several different styles of performance, and except for Hedman, they’re not doing consistently persuasive work. Jos. B. Musemeci Jr.’s blue-and-white setting uneasily straddles the divide between real and unreal by suggesting both a mental institution’s walls and a cloud-strewn sky. He and propmeister Kiersten Moore have cooked up some neat gimmicks for Anne’s bureau drawers (including one that employs strobe lights), but they amount to little more than pleasant distractions in an evening that’s already a bit too distracted for its own good.
The problem facing playwright Beswick is that the whole of The F Word is a reasonably interesting setup for a final act he hasn’t written. His main character, Eric (Louis Cupp), has enormous issues related to familyhis brother is a brash (and, as played by James O. Dunn, remarkably unsympathetic) hetero jerk, his sister a born-again bigot, and his parents apparently disastersyet he’s agreed to be the sperm donor for a lesbian friend who’s anxious to get pregnant.
Eric and Mary (Lynn Chavis) share a New York apartment that’s been inexpensively realized at the Source Theater, and they seem grounded and sensible when they talk about having a child together. Eric’s only reservation appears to be that he thinks his sister Cindy (Jennifer Phillips) wouldn’t approve, and he’s having waking nightmares about her reaction. Urged by both his brother and his child-rearing partner to stop worrying about what she’d think, he works out the problem in his head by imagining conversations with Cindy that range from placid to heated in Jeff Keenan’s staging. But Eric can never bring himself to call Cindy, so he’s essentially arguing with himself, and once the child arrives onstage, an audience’s patience with his dithering is necessarily going to wane.
At one point, Mary raises the question of whether Cindy would try to have the child taken from them if she knew how it was conceiveda dramatic development that would certainly quicken the play’s pulsebut nothing comes of her query, and familial reconciliation, when it comes, remains entirely in Eric’s head. The playwright would be well-advised to eliminate a few of the play’s imaginary arguments and daydream himself a real confrontation. Who knows where it would lead? But it would at least have a point. CP