Sitcom psychology comes to Fells Point stage

July 17, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Geoffrey K. Bond's "The Portable Tutweiller" is ostensibly a comedy about coping with divorce. But the relationship it conveys most convincingly is friendship, which is probably one of the best coping mechanisms there is.

Although Tom Nolte's Alex is as uptight as Stephen Downes' Jesse is laid-back, the long-standing bond between them feels natural and comfortable in Fell's Point Corner Theatre's inaugural production of the 15th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Recently divorced and miserable, Alex claims he's always wanted a "normal" TV-style family, like the Cleavers or the Waltons. Instead, he and Jesse are both children of divorce as well as divorcees themselves.

Of course, in the 1990s, divorce seems to be the rule instead of the exception among sitcom families. But there turns out to be another wrinkle in Alex and Jesse's heritage.

As Alex's bickering parents inform them, these boyhood friends may have more in common than broken homes. Alex's parents and Jesse's parents had a free-love arrangement before the boys were born. Neither set of parents has ever been entirely certain who fathered whom.

While this element may shift "The Portable Tutweiller" out of the realm of standard sitcoms, the play itself has a definite sitcom feeling, from the reliance on one-liners (some quite funny) to Barry Feinstein's bright, comic, highly physical direction.

"The Portable Tutweiller" does feature some serious themes, however. The most resonant of these is expressed by Alex as "finding my place feeling like I belong."

To accomplish this, Alex must come to terms not only with his unresolved feelings about his divorce, but also with the possibility that his best friend may be his half-brother. In an attempt to deal with both of these issues, Alex's father -- played with gusto by J. R. Lyston -- introduces him to Margaret Tutweiller, a famous pop psychologist.

Clad in a spangly metallic jacket that resembles wings whenever her arms are raised -- which is often -- Linda Kent portrays this pop doc in the eccentric style of psychic Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." The silly exercises she has Alex, Jesse and Alex's parents perform add to the play's TV sensibility; it's easy to imagine Tutweiller putting a talk-show panel through the same paces.

But her main message -- the importance of a conciliatory gesture -- is a solid one, and it neatly influences the outcome of the action. Actually, this outcome, which involves Alex's irate downstairs neighbor (Laura Cosner) is a bit too neat and predictable, but then, sitcoms usually are.

Still, "The Portable Tutweiller" is Bond's first play, and slickness isn't the worst attribute for a fledgling playwright. A newcomer to theater in general, Bond should be pleased with Feinstein's similarly slick handling of the script, particularly in the well-choreographed second-act fight scene. In addition, the performances, especially those of Downes as easygoing Jesse and M. L. Grout as Alex's social-activist mother, lend polish to this debut effort, which gets the Playwrights Festival off to a light, agreeable start.

'The Portable Tutweiller'

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; through July 28 Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 276-7837

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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