'A Short Simple Stay'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Aug. 30.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
Call: (410) 276-7837.
At the risk of being glib: Joe Dennison's script, "A Short Simple Stay," would be stronger if it were shorter and simpler.
Right now, the play -- produced by Fells Point Corner Theatre as the final entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- feels as drawn out as a slow day in the tropics, which is where it takes place.
To be specific, it's set in an out-of-the-way hotel in the Philippines after the fall of Saigon (though the specific war turns out to be almost superfluous). Thanks to the rough-hewn island decor of Tony Colavito's set, the production looks great. You can almost feel the prickly foliage out in the audience.
The actors look great, too. Gloria Henderson and Anne Green are done up as cheap tarts, spatting over a languid card game, and bald-shaven Paul Ellis plays Mr. Lupo, the proprietor of this questionable establishment, ensconced in a rattan throne chair and brandishing a bullwhip.
But too many characters are crowded into this drama noir, and for far too long director Karen Friedland's chief task seems to be staging theatrical pictures instead of real conflict.
The genuine drama doesn't get under way until the two main characters meet at the end of the first act. Eddie is an American sailor who has deserted his ship under circumstances he'd jTC rather not reveal. And Maggie is a mystery lady who spends most of her time holed up in her hotel room, not receiving guests -- even though she seems to be the star of Mr. Lupo's stable.
Both have secrets in their pasts, and uncovering them provides most of the intrigue. As Maggie, Beth Sawyer's controlled but compelling performance heightens this intrigue, offering a sophisticated contrast to Jordan Matter's wet-behind-the-ears, daredevil portrayal of Eddie. Nor is it insignificant that Maggie, and especially Eddie, are the only characters who undergo major changes.
The play has an Edgar Allan Poe-like twist at the end, apparently intended to demonstrate that hardly anything ever changes in this godforsaken place. Instead, clever as this ending may be, it feels tacked-on, accentuating the fact that the supporting characters offer little more than atmosphere. Though the prostitutes, Mr. Lupo and his lackey (played with demented glee by Michael Hoffmaster) repeatedly talk of death and danger, we don't sense a true threat until Maggie and Eddie confront their personal demons.
A final comment concerning the reference to Poe, who is, not coincidentally, credited with inventing the mystery story. While "A Short Simple Stay" feels like a one-act play stretched to two acts, it also feels as if it would make a more satisfying short story. In this tale of the macabre, it's the internal dramas -- the things left unsaid -- that get under your skin.