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Two for the Show 

Theater Review: Don and Tom & Hollywood

Don and Tom & Hollywood, written and directed by Stephen Goldberg, One Take Productions. Burlington City Hall. Closed April 18.

Snow, by Gordon Porterfield, directed by Kim Bent, Lost Nation Theater, Montpelier. Closed April 20.

OK, let me just state first off that it feels a little wrong to praise a play that portrays psychotic killers as lovable crazies. But praise I must. Stephen Goldberg's Don and Tom, half of a double bill that just closed at City Hall following an earlier run at 135 Pearl, is laugh-out-loud funny and often startling in its brazenness -- especially when compared to the other play, Goldberg's Hollywood.

It's highly unlikely that two homicidal maniacs -- Don (Aaron Masi), who raped and murdered a little girl, and Tom (Paul J. Soychak), who killed his parents -- would wind up as death-row roomies. But writer-director Goldberg leaves no doubt from the start that we are in an absurd universe. If the killers are crazy, so are the over-the-top authority figures who lord it over them, including a cowboy-hat-wearing priest and Tom's abusive father -- both played with gusto by the versatile John D. Alexander.

Masi and Soychak are a cockeyed comic duo, a demented Mutt and Jeff in orange prison jumpsuits. With his dazed glare and bursts of chipmunkish energy, Soychak suggests a wilder Wally Cox. Masi is disarmingly funny whether complimenting his fellow murderer ("You look like a suffocation guy to me") or spinning loony fantasies of piloting a private airline where Hillary Clinton does in-flight lap dances for the crew. When the two finally receive their simultaneous lethal injections, it puts a whole new spin on good chemistry.

Does this speedy romp through patricide, rape, religion and capital punishment mean to suggest that our system of treating the criminally insane is itself a form of insanity? Maybe, but you don't have to get the message to enjoy the flight.

Hollywood, on the other hand, winds up getting grounded by the very cliches it mocks. This is ironic, because other than a pair of aggressively vapid TV entertainment-news hosts, the characters in Hollywood seem meant to be more "realistic" than those in Don and Tom, albeit real figures operating amidst the unrealities of the movie industry.

But if we accept the premise, we start to wonder about the particulars. If a character's supposed to be a once-famous actress, not to mention the wife of Hollywood's most successful movie mogul, how is it that just any schlub can interrupt her lunch and thrust a screenplay at her? The schlub turns out to be a two-faced operator, so how is it he's such a babe-in-the-woods when it comes to rewrites and dealmaking? And are we really supposed to believe the mogul when he tells his wife he got Arthur Miller to write a screenplay for her? Head-scratchers like these keep interrupting our willingness to buy the plot's sometimes entertaining twists and turns.

If we do buy anything in Holly-wood, it's because of the actors, in particular Dennis McSorley as an unapologetic asshole of a producer. The play's most enjoyable scenes are those between McSorley and Peter Freyne as the private detective he hires to spy on his wife and the screenwriter. Not that these scenes are particularly credible, either, but for a while there's the pleasure of watching actors riffing off one another and reveling in the playwright's skill at off-kilter conversation -- a skill seen to much better effect in Don and Tom.

Gordon Porterfield's Snow, which received its world premiere this month at Lost Nation Theater, is a sweet, gentle piece of writing -- as gentle, you might say, as a snowfall. But at times it also seems as long as the winter we've just endured.

The basic premise is this: Claire, a prim but perky young Baltimore librarian, has invited herself up one snowy evening to the apartment of Stephen, a shy library patron she's been eyeing for weeks. Before long we discover that she's a former nun and he has a painful secret that's kept him in and out of mental institutions. Eventually we learn why she left the convent, and why he has attempted suicide. They do a lot of talking over two acts to reach an outcome that seems predetermined before the first act is over: Girl wants boy, girl will get boy, boy will feel better.

That said, much of the talk is engrossing, thanks to the playwright and the performers, and to the sensitive direction of Kim Bent, Lost Nation's co-producing artistic director. Porterfield gets just right the precise vocabulary and sprightly humor of the formerly cloistered convent girl. Courtney Bell, as Claire, carries off her ornate elocutions with ease. She's physically adept, too, springing into action with an inventive recreation of the Battle of Orleans (starring one of Claire's favorite saints, Joan of Arc).

As Stephen, Jon L. Egging -- in an exquisitely calibrated performance -- speaks in a style that's both halting and exact, as if he's walking a conversational tightrope where saying the wrong word could send him toppling into the abyss. One speech in particular, where he relives a horrific childhood memory, is written and acted with breathtaking attention to detail.

At times there is no talk at all -- such as when the couple makes its first tender, tentative attempts at a kiss -- and these are perhaps the most eloquent of all.

Sometimes, though, Snow walks a tightrope of a different kind, threatening to topple over into the land of cutesy-poo. My inner cynic kept sending up alerts: Oh, no, she's not going to give him a teddy bear! Oh, no, she's not going to ask him to snuggle! But then self-aware Claire cuts through the cutesiness with a barb. "A victim of excessive devotion," she calls the bear.

Claire's also onto herself when it comes to talking too much. "I'm a verbal Niagara Falls," she says, and you forgive her. It's not as easy to forgive in the second act, when she apologizes again.

But there's a deeper problem here. It's not just that Claire talks too much; it's that we don't see what's driving the talk. Bell is an appealing actress, but as we learn more about her character's life and see just how obsessed she has become with this stranger, a more disturbing need seems to be at work. In one potentially touching moment, Claire recalls how hungry she was for physical warmth after her father died, and how that hunger led her to reach out to a fellow novitiate. We want her to reveal more, but Bell, and Porter-field, only let us in so far. Even though Claire says she's scared, we agree with Stephen when he replies, "You don't seem to be."

Stephen, on the other hand, doesn't think he'll ever not be scared. And Claire is so blithely confident that the play seems imbalanced. Rather than two walking wounded reaching out to heal one another, we see a latter-day saint taking a lost boy under her wing. And by gosh, by the end of the play -- after they've had sex -- he tells her he's not scared anymore. Somehow, I can't believe that even a saint could turn around a lifetime of fear in just one night. That's the stuff of miracle plays.

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