'Supper' starved for substance Review: The amusing premise of More Theatre's inaugural production quickly wears thin.

October 12, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

More Theatre, Baltimore's newest local company, is presenting its inaugural production. But despite an amusing premise, "Leonardo's Last Supper" is one of those plays in which less is not more.

Focusing on a family of 16th-century undertakers down on their luck, the 70-minute one-act play mixes flatulence jokes with slides of some of Leonardo da Vinci's greatest works. It's the kind of juxtaposition you'd expect from Monty Python or, perhaps, from eclectic playwright Peter Barnes, whose other writing credits include the screenplays of "The Ruling Class" and "Enchanted April."

Barnes frames his play as a museum exhibit. With excessive cheerfulness and a handful of index cards, Sharol Buck serves as our modern-day guide, spewing dates and reading from da Vinci's notebooks on subjects as varied as peach trees and warfare. She then takes us back to a charnel house in France in 1519, and the real action begins.

Run out of their native Italy, the greedy Lasca family has had the unexpected good fortune of being hired to bury the great da Vinci. The Lascas -- played by Jeff Roberts, in a Halloween-looking black wig, and a bossy Bethany Hoffman -- figure this status corpse will be their ticket back to their native country.

Their hopes seem dashed, however, when da Vinci -- impish Jason Yaffe -- is suddenly resurrected. It's what every undertaker fears, bemoans Roberts' Lasca.

Given a second chance at life, da Vinci vows to make something of himself and finish all his unfinished masterpieces. But before the artist can get started, the Lascas' wastrel son (Morgan Stanton) comes to the family's rescue and, in a totally predictable ending, proves himself the worthy heir to their corrupt traditions.

Barnes may be saying that, while greed may triumph in the short run, genius will outlast it. Or, perhaps he's just having some fun, reminding us that the Renaissance was not all beauty and glory.

The actors, under Raine Bode's direction, seem to enjoy themselves. And the shabby sanctuary of St. John's Church, where the play is being staged, lends itself well to housing the Lascas' down-at-heels Renaissance hovel. But the church's poor acoustics, combined with the cast's uneven accents, take away much of the audience's fun.

Even at its best, however, this "Last Supper" would be thin fare, and it's certainly an odd choice to launch a theater company.

"Leonardo's Last Supper" is presented at St. John's Church, 27th and St. Paul streets. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $7.50. Call 410-685-6673.

The importance of being Wilde

Meanwhile, the Spotlighters Theatre is exploring the fate of a man of a different kind of genius. The play is "Oscar," and its subject is one of the more popular figures on stage and screen these days -- Oscar Wilde.

"Oscar" covers roughly the same period as the off-Broadway hit "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." What sets "Oscar" apart is the attention it pays to Wilde's home life, as represented by his wife, Constance.

Peter Levy, a California attorney, wrote "Oscar" 13 years ago, but as he acknowledged when he was in town for the play's opening weekend, there's a new timeliness to this examination of the impact of a celebrity's highly publicized extra-marital affair. (He even includes a line in which Wilde's lover, Lord Afred Douglas, asks him to wear a certain necktie.)

In most other respects, however, the play is undistinguished. A series of short scenes separated by the broadcast voices of gossips, "Oscar" is devoid of the theatricality of "Gross Indecency" and the sparkling wit of Wilde. Consider, for example, some of the cliches uttered by Constance (who, nonetheless, receives a sympathetic portrayal by Maria Lakkala). All the sand has run out of the hour glass," she says. "The fires of romantic love have burned out."

Ron Gregory puts immense effort into the title role, which requires him to spend the entire evening on stage. Indeed, on the night I attended, he seemed ready to burst into tears at the curtain call. But like the script, his performance lacks the requisite style -- a real danger when writing and performing a play about a master of style. Collin Back conveys a bit more of a debonair air as selfish, aristocratic Lord Alfred. And Patrick Bangs leaves no doubt about the loyalty of Robbie Ross, Wilde's friend and literary executor.

But Levy's episodic play is too simply clunky. Neither act comes to a clear conclusion -- a difficulty that contributed to a lack of applause at the end of Act 1. Nor does it help that director Robin Holt's production contains many easily corrected gaffes. (The title page of a manuscript written by Lord Alfred, for instance, reads "The Merchant of Venice.")

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