Two one-act plays explore relationships in widely different ways

March 18, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Presenting a double bill of one-act plays by Harold Pinter and Joe Orton makes sense since these writers were fans of each other's work. And though New Century Theater's productions of Pinter's "The Lover" and Orton's "The Ruffian on the Stair" are uneven, the resonances between them are intriguing and unmistakable.

In "The Lover," an upper middle-class British husband and wife openly discuss -- indeed encourage -- each other's infidelities. Much of the humor derives from the chilly civility with which they address the hot subject of extramarital lust -- a subject so potentially incendiary that the less civilized might be tempted to "discuss" it at gunpoint.

A gun does figure into the conversation in "The Ruffian," a play about a lower-class -- or more precisely criminal class -- couple whose relationship is tested by the appearance of a dangerous intruder.

Pinter's play is an amusing sexual fantasy; Orton's is a warped nightmare. In the first, which includes an entertaining plot twist, extreme measures are taken to disguise the libido; in the second, the emotions are exposed and raw.

Seen together, the scripts -- being presented at the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Auditorium -- demonstrate how two 20th century British playwrights achieve similar ends through opposite means. Using subtlety in Pinter's case and outrageousness in Orton's, each demonstrates the lengths to which people will go to maintain relationships.

This similarity would be even more pointed if the same actors were cast as the couples in each play. However, that assignment might be too much of a stretch for this ambitious but fledgling company. Indeed, New Century has chosen to further differentiate the scripts by using separate directors.

Raine Bode's direction maintains a quirky antic tone in "The Lover," exemplified by the fine performance of Dana Whipkey as the husband, a gentleman who straddles the line between propriety and the offbeat. As his wife, however, Hillary Levin's portrayal has a smirking self-consciousness; she doesn't seem serious enough.

She would have been wise to pay attention to Orton's production notes to "The Ruffian": "Every one of the characters must be real. None of them is ever consciously funny. . . . Unless it's real it won't be funny." Director Laura Hackman's response to this advice varies. Brian P. Chetelat and Felicia Shakman do their best as the central couple, but their characters seem closer to stock types than flesh-and-blood. On the other hand, as the title character, Brandon Park strays too far from caricature; he's a soft, equivocal ruffian.

"The Lover" and "The Ruffian on the Stair" aren't their authors' best works, which makes them even more challenging to stage. However, each of these rarely produced scripts is filled with characteristic touches, and the decision to mount them together typifies New Century's insight and daring.

"The Lover" and "The Ruffian on the Stair" continue at Langsdale Auditorium Thursdays to Sundays through March 28. Call (410) 426-6889.

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