Cliches play role in 'Three One Acts' Comedies: Three plays at Spotlighters Theatre full of fun writing, comic performances.

August 17, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Only one of the three one-act comedies being presented at the Spotlighters is actually about cliches. But in a sense, they all are, since each puts a new spin on a cliched situation.

The tone for this trio of Baltimore Playwrights Festival offerings is set by the opener, Mark Scharf's clever 10-minute sketch, "Like White on Rice," which is written entirely in cliches.

Ten minutes of cliches might not seem to amount to much. But Scharf's singular achievement is that, using everything from worn-out pick-up lines ("What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?") to threadbare quotations from sources as wide-ranging as Alcoholics Anonymous and Shakespeare, he succeeds in establishing a fleeting romantic triangle between a young woman (Cindy Spearman) in a bar and the two men (C. Dan Bursi and Jerry Gietka) who are competing to pick her up.

In Paul Sambol's "One for the Road," a nervous insurance company executive (Rodney Bonds) visits a fortune teller (Laura Gifford) to find out if he's going to he downsized. Gifford is a hoot as this bossy fortune teller, whose psychic abilities are rather limited. Gazing at her client's tea leaves, she gleans the brilliant insight: "You want to have your fortune told."

The notion of an insurance exec relying on a psychic is amusing in itself, given that insurance companies are in the business of trying to second-guess the future. The playwright, however, saves his funniest twist for the play's ending, in which technology turns fortune-telling from an art into a science.

The longest and most elaborate of the one-acts is Robert Leland Taylor's cumbersomely titled "Sex Without Pliers," a spoof of the detective genre. Struggling private investigator Dudley Hatcher Carp -- played by Dave Manning with the right rumpled look but a plodding delivery -- is so relieved at the prospect of a rich client that he starts speaking in rhyme. His brief foray into silliness, however, is nothing compared with the flights of fancy taken by his secretary. Hilariously depicted by Kathy Dutter, this gum-chewing, squeaky voiced Girl Friday breaks into song whenever anyone says anything that could be construed as a lyric.

Other cartoon-like touches include a little old lady in tennis shoes -- portrayed by an enthusiastically daffy Joan Corcoran -- whose entrances are punctuated by thunder and lightning; and a pair of stagehands in Groucho Marx glasses who are so forceful about changing the scenery that when they remove a chair, an actor is often still seated in it.

Yet despite these offbeat touches, the play as a whole resembles a college skit, an effect reinforced by the inclusion of sexual puns. Furthermore, in contrast with director Miriam Bazensky's fluid use of the Spotlighters' in-the-round stage in the first two plays, Bob Bardoff's direction of "Sex Without Pliers" tends to strand the actors so that only their backs are visible to large portions of the audience for much of the time. Overall, however, the comic performances and whimsical writing in this trio of one-acts produce enough grins to counteract most quibbles.

Show times for "Three One-Acts," at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Aug. 29. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

History comes to life

The Maryland Historical Society has been honored with a Certificate of Commendation for its living history program, "Maryland Through My Eyes." The certificate, to be awarded on Sept. 11 in Sacramento, Calif., is given by the American Association for State and Local History and honors the preservation and interpretation of local history.

Originally developed for the 1997 Historical Society exhibit, "Baltimore Inc.: From Mobtown to Charm City," "Maryland Through My Eyes" continues to be performed in area schools. It was scripted by Helen Jean Burn, a former writer and producer for Maryland Public Television, and features four composite characters: a western Maryland miller in 1797, a free African-American longshoreman in 1840, an immigrant garment

worker in 1883, and a suffragette in 1925.

Turmoil at Livent

Last week's upheaval at Livent Inc., one of the leading theatrical producing companies in North America, included almost daily developments and allegations. On Monday, Livent's management -- led by former Walt Disney Co. president Michael Ovitz and U.S. investment banker Roy Furman -- suspended Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottleib, the Toronto company's founders, for alleged financial irregularities. On Tuesday, Livent was hit with a class-action suit. By the end of the week, the New York Times and Variety were reporting that Drabinsky had kept two sets of books.

The whole fracas has the makings of one of Drabinsky's own large-scale Broadway musicals (he's the producer of, among other shows, "Ragtime" and the Tony Award-winning revival of "Show Boat"). Then again, it's probably more of an old-fashioned melodrama than a musical.

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