Amorality play holds few surprises

September 28, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In Jonathan Bowen's "Speaking in Tongues," which is receiving its world premiere at the Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, the character of a maintenance woman claims she's the only one who does any real work.

Though only a minor character, she serves a chorus-like truth-telling role, railing against businesses that don't produce a tangible product -- businesses like marketing, public relations and advertising.

The PR firm in the play, however, is more treacherous than even this wise woman (Paris Obligin) realizes. The partners in the firm of Greene and Schaeffer may never dirty their hands with real work, but their souls become permanently stained.

When the firm loses its only bankable account, partner Doug Schaeffer comes up with what he believes to be a foolproof get-rich scheme. Recalling that the PR firm that handled the Tylenol scare ended up winning that lucrative pharmaceutical account, Doug decides to engineer a drug scare of his own. Only this time, he guarantees, no one will get hurt.

The consequences of this plan sound predictable, and, with the exception of some unintentional loose ends, Bowen's plot offers few surprises. The play has a dynamic final scene, however, proving the playwright knows how to craft dramatic tension. And director Tim Weinfeld knows how to make this tension build -- though in other respects his staging reinforces the play's predictability. Each actor, for example, seems to have been assigned a distinct space on stage and rarely ventures from it.

Thematically, Bowen suggests that the immorality of these Mephistophelean marketing executives isn't as dangerous as their amorality. "We don't have morals, we don't want 'em. They hinder job performance," Doug boasts. It isn't so much that these folks don't know the difference between good and evil; they don't care.

Try as they might, however, they are unable to foist this philosophy on the up-and-coming young man they've taken under their wing. An evangelical preacher's son named Mike, he has fled the speaking-in-tongues gibberish of his father's ministry only to find himself trapped in the gibberish of a firm whose partners are virtually inarticulate. Hyper Doug communicates with frenzied body language; his partner, Rita Greene, settles for finishing her sentences with "blah-blah-blah."

Somewhat of a cross between a morality play and a melodrama, "Speaking in Tongues" doesn't feature characters of much depth. This may be partly the playwright's point, but it doesn't make for involving theater.

Within their characters' narrow parameters, Suzannah Carlson and Donald Joseph Koch do apt jobs as spaced-out Rita and wired Doug. Keith D. Ullman, however, shines as troubled Mike. His performance contributes significantly to the impact of the final scene.

"Speaking in Tongues" would be more chilling if its characters were more fully developed and its outcome less obvious. In this respect, it could learn something from advertising, a field that frequently deals in subliminal seduction. Instead, it takes the hard-sell approach in examining a culture in which "truth in advertising" has become an oxymoron.


What: "Speaking in Tongues"

Where: Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, 908 Washington Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 16

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 727-1847

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