Theme of violence links two plays


Review: `Urban Breakdowns' looks for the identity of an arsonist

`Rim of the Wheel' involves the murder of a pizza deliverer.

June 21, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Homicide: Life on the Street" may have been canceled, but the theme of violence in Charm City lives on in the two most recent Baltimore Playwrights Festival openings.

The more effective of the two is "Urban Breakdowns," produced by Mobtown Players at Fell's Point Corner Theatre and written by Mimi Teahan. An assistant public defender in Baltimore city, Teahan also wrote about urban violence in her previous full-length festival entry, 1996's "Realtime."

In "Urban Breakdowns," she focuses on a young couple in a Baltimore apartment building. Like the playwright, Karen is a public defender; her boyfriend, Mark, is a city school teacher. Yvette Ebb and Richard Price give credible, empathetic performances in the lead roles. It's their predicament that doesn't always make sense.

Mark is convinced the city is dangerous and wants to move to Carroll County. When the play begins, Karen has just tried the commute and is highly miffed at the waste of time. In a slickly staged opening, director Ryan S. Whinnem has her enter through the audience, grumbling all the way.

The incidents that have prompted Mark's concern are a series of fires set in trash cans outside the apartment house. An arson investigator (James Edward Lee) becomes involved, and much of the play takes the form of a mystery as the characters try to discover the identity of the arsonist.

The solution reinforces Teahan's thesis about loneliness and the difficulty of making connections in urban America -- a thesis spelled out too overtly in Karen's speech at the end of the play. And there's another flaw -- I couldn't help wondering why Mark and Karen didn't simply move to a safer Baltimore neighborhood.

Daphne R. Hull's "Rim of the Wheel," a Directors Choice production at the Howard County Arts Center, is based on an actual event -- the 1994 murder of a young Russian immigrant who worked as a pizza deliveryman. It's an emotion-laden story, but Hull allows the tension to trickle away as she overloads the script with exposition and tedious detail.

The play is structured like a TV docudrama, with a series of short scenes separated by often lengthy scene changes. Many of the scenes are extraneous. We do not, for example, need to see the Russian family's arrival at their new apartment; after all, plenty of subsequent scenes take place there. And the play continues two scenes longer than necessary -- a gaffe that was especially apparent on opening night, when the audience applauded before the play was over.

There is some nice character development, particularly on the part of Lance Baldwin as the eventual murder victim and Maria Lakkala as his initially optimistic mother. But there's a difference between emphasizing the telling detail and emphasizing every detail. "Rim of the Wheel" fails to make that distinction.

Show times for "Urban Breakdowns," at the upstairs theater at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10. Call 410-467-3057. Show times for "Rim of the Wheel," at the Howard County Arts Center, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10. Call 410-313-2787.

A rollicking `Seven Brides'

Cockpit in Court's 27th season is off to a rip-roaring start with a fine production of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Adapted from the 1954 MGM movie musical -- which was, in turn, adapted from Stephen Vincent Benet's story "The Sobbin' Women," based on Plutarch's "The Rape of the Sabine Women" -- "Seven Brides" died a quick death on Broadway in 1982.

Despite being the story of a half-dozen women carted off to the Oregon mountains against their will, the musical has a homespun, family-friendly feeling, thanks largely to the warm, sensible character of Milly (charmingly played by Jane E. Brown). Good-natured Milly marries rough-hewn, chauvinistic Adam Pontipee without realizing she will also be expected to take care of his six bachelor brothers.

As Adam, Bill Molnur combines the proper gruff presence with a rich vocal quality that blends beautifully with Brown's lilting singing. Directed by Eric Potter, the production also features spirited and, at one point, athletic dancing, choreographed by Angelique Causey and well-executed by the six brothers and their eventual sweethearts.

The music, which augments the Gene de Paul-Johnny Mercer movie score with songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn, has some catchy tunes, although most of the lyrics fall far below Mercer's high standard. "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" may be a mere footnote in Broadway history, but that footnote sings and dances with style at Cockpit.

Show times on the Cockpit Mainstage at Essex Community College, 7201 Rossville Blvd., are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m Sunday. Tickets are $13-$15. Call 410-780-6369.

Second-string Shakespeare

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