'Mean Reds' presents a raw reality Reviews: 'Couplets,' at Black Box Theatre, is a mixed bag

'Fever of Warmth and Darkness' falls flat too often


August 24, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The final three productions of the 1998 Baltimore Playwrights Festival opened within the same week, heralding the opening of two new theater companies as well.

In Mark Scharf's "The Mean Reds," at the Vagabond Players, Mike Drennon is suffering from a mixture of anger, resentment and depression. It's his birthday, and his wife -- an alcoholic he helped through recovery -- has left him. No wonder he has the mean reds.

Scharf's play follows Mike through the course of the day, as assorted friends and family attempt to cheer him up. It's not an easy task, especially since Mike is loath to give up the mean reds (a phrase that surfaces more than necessary).

"Anger is the only thing that's keeping me going," insists Russell Wooldridge's Mike, whose actions -- such as taking off his wedding ring and pounding it with a hammer -- convey that anger, though the actor's manner often seems more resigned than seething.

Scharf has tacked on an oversimplified conclusion, but in other respects the playwright doesn't shy away from showing that alcoholism, recovery and marital discord are messy, complicated problems. One of the best examples is the character of Rose, Mike's wife. Rose could easily be dismissed as the villain of the piece, and indeed, her unwillingness to discuss her point of view with Mike, as well as her seeming lack of concern for her children, brand her as selfish.

However, as written by Scharf and portrayed by Janise Bonds, Rose has a degree of sweetness, almost an innocence. But that innocence comes with blinders. She's so caught up in her recovery program, she can't see beyond her own welfare and has forsaken her responsibility to others.

Director Bill Kamberger makes good use of the four acting areas in designer Dan Bursi's set, at times presenting simultaneous action. He also elicits sincere performances from his cast, particularly Stephen Downes as Mike's frustrated best friend and Anne B. Mulligan as Mike's concerned, well-meaning mother, a family court judge who's seen it all and still believes everything works out for the best.

For that matter, the play itself is sincere and earnest. It would be more powerful, however, if instead of giving in to the temptation to present a neat ending, the playwright trusted the rough, raw reality he depicts so effectively in the preceding scenes.

"The Mean Reds" continues at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, through Aug. 30. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10. Call 410-563-9135.


At the Howard County Center for the Arts' new Black Box Theatre, a bill of short plays is the inaugural production of the fledging Howard Theatre Company. Although the pieces share a sense of looniness, they vary in tone from Paul Sambol's light, appealing "Something Else Entirely" to the five dark sketches that make up Delores Moran's uneven "Perilous Encounters."

In "Something Else Entirely," Maria Lakkala plays a workaholic career woman named Diane who is meeting an old friend, Valerie, for lunch. When Valerie arrives, however, she is distracted and jumpy -- characteristics Lindy Davis has mastered so thoroughly, it makes you nervous to watch her.

The reason for Valerie's bizarre behavior, it turns out, is that she's been hearing voices. And, before long, we hear them, too -- voices advising her to do everything from "build a mall" to "save France." Her friend, Diane, portrayed by Lakkala as a no-nonsense type, is initially appalled, advising Valerie, "It's time to say 'yes' to drugs." But Sambol -- who has another otherworldly one-act, "One for the Road," running at the Spotlighters -- opts for something quirkier than pharmaceuticals, ending "Something Else" with a comic bit of role reversal.

Moran's "Perilous Encounters" covers broader, more threatening terrain, beginning with "Fear and Sheep," a monologue delivered by a woman whose life is ruled by worry. Anita Gutschick has the right, slightly crazed presence as this unnamed neurotic. But her stream-of-consciousness spiel sounds too much like a stand-up routine.

The most tightly structured "Encounter" is "Scalper," in which a woman (Lynn Zimmerman) in a business suit has a run-in with a tattooed punk (Denise Cumor) while they wait outside the ladies' room. Unlikely pairings also characterize "The Cook," about a man (Steven King) sharing his home with a cook (a Lou Costello-like Michael Moran) with disgusting kitchen habits, and "Execute Command," about a nebbish (Anthony Scimonelli) who goes to a dominatrix-hypnotist (Zimmerman again) to stop smoking.

Moran's only complete misfire is "Georgio Graves." An odd piece about death, marriage and abuse, it succumbs to arty preciousness, typified by the inexplicable use of garish lighting.

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