Wasserstein play a coup for theater

Theater

Premiere: Baltimore's Spotlighters Theatre attracts `An American Daughter,' a satire -- or social commentary -- inspired by headlines surrounding `Nannygate.'

January 18, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Spotlighters Theatre appears to have scored somewhat of a coup in getting the rights to Wendy Wasserstein's most recent Broadway play, "An American Daughter," especially since the playwright is reportedly rewriting it.

With nine speaking roles and several non-speaking, the play is an impressive undertaking for a small theater.

And while director Bob Russell's production shows some of the flaws in Wasserstein's most overtly political play, it also adequately conveys many of the script's strengths.

Most of those strengths concern the interplay between the female characters -- Lyssa Dent Hughes, a nominee for surgeon general; her closest friend, Judith B. Kaufman, a black, Jewish oncologist; Quincy Quince, an abrasive celebrity feminist; and "Chubby" Hughes, the fourth wife of Lyssa's senator father.

The scenes between Conni Ross' earnest Lyssa and Debbie Bennett's cynical but devoted Judith are among the production's best.

In these days of Zippergate, the chief controversy that clouds Lyssa's nomination sounds relatively minor -- her failure to respond to a jury summons.

Quickly dubbed "Jurygate," it turns Lyssa's personal life into a media circus, complete with the Washington press corps setting up camp outside her Georgetown home.

The Jurygate issue is brought up by another of Lyssa's friends, a gay, black, right-wing screenwriter, adeptly played by James Lee. Unfortunately, he brings it up in front of a TV reporter, played by Dave Gamble as a man who hungers for a juicy scoop at the same time he desperately wants to be liked by the subject of that scoop.

Lyssa is surprisingly forgiving of both men -- as well as of her husband (Jonathan Claiborne), whom she catches in the arms of his erstwhile protege, sexy Quincy Quince (Kate Revelle).

Lyssa's do-gooder tendencies, coupled with her willingness to believe the best of everyone, do not serve her well in back-stabbing Washington.

She is a woman determined to not only do it all, but do it well. Wasserstein has written before about the high price paid by such seemingly perfect women, and that theme is poignantly reinforced here.

The play's shortcoming isn't what it's saying, but how it says it. Not only does the action drag, but there are far too many diatribe-like speeches, especially the one Lyssa delivers on the TV reporter's program at the end.

Although "An American Daughter" was partly inspired by "Nannygate" -- the revelation that derailed 1993 attorney general nominee Zoe Baird -- I suspect Wasserstein intended "Jurygate" to be a satirical issue.

Today, however, when the issues that make headlines are more ludicrous than satire, it's nearly impossible to one-up reality. Instead of a political comedy, "An American Daughter" comes closer to being a sad commentary on everything from the city of Washington to the state of feminism.

"An American Daughter" continues at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 7. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

Vagabonds' `Orphans'

In contrast with the complex, large-cast effort at the Spotlight- ers, the Vagabond Players are tackling a smaller and seemingly more manageable script -- Lyle Kessler's three-person play, "Orphans."

Director Alex Willis elicits taut performances from all three performers -- Mike Heany as a petty criminal named Treat, Ronald Burr as his backward younger brother, Phillip, and, especially, Steve Oldham as Harold, the wealthy businessman Treat kidnaps.

The trouble is, the play never quite makes sense or, more specifically, Oldham's character never makes sense.

Led into Treat's run-down North Philadelphia rowhouse drunk and spouting gibberish about his love for the old-time movie gang, the Dead End Kids, Oldham's slick Harold turns the tables on the young men, taking over their lives and, presumably, teaching them values.

But the lessons he teaches Treat involve carrying a gun to ward off some thugs who are after Harold, though why they are after him is never explained.

Presumably, the playwright felt that a degree of mystery would add intrigue. But since that mystery is so vague, the result is unsatisfying, no matter how well produced.

Given these limitations, Burr gives an endearing portrayal of sheltered Phillip; Heany seems tough and dumb enough to star in an Elmore Leonard novel; and Oldham, who has played this role before, is ingratiatingly fatherly. By the end of the play, his character not only has earned the boys' friendship and love, they're practically worshiping him.

It's also worth mentioning that set designer Dan Bursi and his able stagehands do a crackerjack job transforming Treat and Phillip's junk-heap of a living room into a spic-and-span paragon of good housekeeping during intermission.

Go to "Orphans" to see a character study, and the Vagabonds won't disappoint; go to see a carefully crafted drama, and you'll be left scratching your head.

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