Here's the most troublesome question gnawing away at the foundation of Robert R. Bowie Jr.'s "The Naked House Painting Society": If a husband were planning a romantic weekend to rekindle his relationship with his wife, why would he invite his wife's former lover to go along?
The cynical answer is because it sets up the plot of this play,
currently being presented at the Spotlighters as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Admittedly, there are some interesting complications in Mr. Bowie's account of two yuppie couples -- the former lover is accompanied by his gullible wife -- who return to the Martha Vineyard house where the principals changed partners 10 years ago.
The most intriguing complication concerns infertility, a theme that not only increases the play's emotional stakes, but also produces a clever and unexpectedly dark plot twist.
The production receives a decided boost from Jeffrey M. Heller's adept direction of several strong actors, particularly Willie Brooks as the husband who's so desperate to save his marriage that he will do anything to please his wife -- including allowing her to spend the night in the house alone with her former lover. Mr. Brooks' character is so suffused with goodness that his rival calls him "Tom Sawyer," and yet, the actor carries it off; his character is the most decent member of the foursome.
In contrast, Mark E. Campion portrays the least decent of the four, a frustrated poet who is also an alcoholic and a philanderer. As the play proceeds, his character's behavior grows increasingly adolescent, despicable and irresponsible. But somehow Mr. Campion retains enough dignity to keep him from becoming an out-and-out yuppie super-villain.
Laura McFarland delivers an empathetic performance as the apex of the play's romantic triangle. However, Anne Greene is a cipher as Mr. Campion's long-suffering wife.
"The Naked House Painting Society" is Mr. Bowie's fifth consecutive Baltimore Playwrights Festival production, and so far it is impossible to discern a common style or voice. In fact, even within this script, the dialogue varies from sounding improvised to over-written.
Perhaps the greatest asset of this new work is that, despite the obviousness of the premise, the conclusion is somewhat open-ended. Whether or not Ms. McFarland's character remains happily married, she has learned to care. Her small but significant change goes a long way toward redeeming the play.
"The Naked House Painting Society" continues at the Spotlighters through July 28; call 752-1225.