Play mixes 'Dilbert,' 'Lord of the Flies' Stranded: 'Neville's Island,' a funny play about four men stuck on an island, showcases the talent at Howard County's Rep Stage.

November 12, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Despite a growing reputation among the theater-literate in Washington, Rep Stage remains largely unknown among Baltimore theatergoers -- and that's a good thing, at least for Howard County residents. It leaves more tickets available for locals to see "Neville's Island," Rep Stage's latest production.

"Neville's Island," by British playwright Tim Firth, is a self-mocking comedy with a soul of darkness.

Tickets are, deservedly, selling out fast, thanks to word-of-mouth about the fine performances, fabulous set and overall excellence of the production.

Imagine "Lord of the Flies," William Golding's horrific tale of shipwrecked English schoolboys, interpreted by the characters in Scott Adam's "Dilbert" comic strip, and you will have a good feel for the tone of the play.

"Neville's Island" follows the slow -- at times too slow -- disintegration of civilized behavior among four Englishmen stranded on a small island in Derwent Water, a lake in northern England's Lake District.

The four are co-workers, all middle managers at a water-bottling company, taking part in an outdoor team-building exercise. The play begins as the quartet struggles ashore after its rowboat sinks.

It is obvious from the beginning that the men are very different. The inevitable clashes are hilarious, frequently unexpected and sometimes unsettling. Firth could have settled for quick, sitcom-style laughs, but chose instead to probe the issues of class, religion, manhood and corporate culture.

The subject matter never bogs down the action, though Firth does take his sweet time getting to the point.

As the play's protagonists, Terence Aselford (Neville), Conrad Feininger (Gordon), Bruce R. Nelson (Angus) and Jack Vernon (Roy) turn in fine performances.

Aselford, in particular, shines. His role, as the team captain who lands the quartet into trouble, is the least showy of the four. It requires a strong, confident presence and a subtle touch. Aselford provides all three, plus perfect comic timing, to ably hold his own among the flashier roles of his co-stars.

Feininger makes the most of gruff Gordon -- and that is saying a good deal. Gordon is quick with a quip, and Feininger manages to launch his character's verbal darts while revealing glimpses of the man's underlying pain and loneliness.

Nelson's role has the greatest potential of the four for becoming a caricature, but Nelson resists. Instead he gives us an Angus who, while gadget-loving, socially inept and rather annoying, is achingly human. Nelson's performance is first-rate.

Vernon, in his first show at Rep Stage, ably plays a born-again Christian who has had a mental breakdown. He imbues the character's seeming mildness with an intensity that helps to explain his actions late in the play.

Unfortunately, Vernon's accent distracts considerably from his performance. At times more North Carolina than Northampton, his accent varies wildly throughout the play. As a result, Vernon is the cast's weak link -- and that becomes a problem late in the play as his character becomes the focus of the action.

That action culminates in a collective nervous breakdown, acted out on Robin J. Stapley's stunningly realistic set. The characters climb trees, they splash through water and emerge soaked.

Stapley uses every possible inch of space in the small, 125-seat theater, stretching the edges of the island to within inches of spectators in the front row. It makes for an intimate theater experience. As a spectator, you feel almost as though you are perched in a tree watching the four implode.

Under the direction of Rep Stage's associate artistic director, Kasi Campbell, the characters play off one another rather than against each other -- a fine distinction that showcases her talent. In less skilled hands, the characters would compete for audience attention.

Campbell makes good use of Stapley's set, and controls the pace of the play beautifully. The result is a funny, dynamic story rather than a series of monologues or vignettes.

"Neville's Island" plays at Rep Stage's Outback Theater, on the campus of Howard Community College, until Nov. 22. It is a well-crafted, spirited production of a very funny play, and it is well worth the effort to see it.

Information: 410-772-4900.

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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