`Psychopathia' takes shots at psychiatry

Theater

Review: John Patrick Shanley's two-dimensional new comedy about love and dysfunction could be a cartoon, if it were funnier.

September 27, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"When it comes to matters of the heart, or even more, matters of sex, men are cartoon characters," comments one of the two female characters in John Patrick Shanley's comedy, "Psychopathia Sexualis," which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

Shanley -- best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Moonstruck" -- named his 1996 play after the classic 19th century study of sexual aberrations by German psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing. But despite its serious-sounding title, Shanley's entire comedy -- not just his male characters -- is an extended cartoon, and not an extremely funny one at that.

Thin as it may be, however, the play does have a bit of substance. Shanley makes some interesting observations about the competitive nature of male friendships as opposed to the cooperative nature of female friendships. But mostly, the playwright takes potshots at psychiatry. It's an easy target, and Shanley's approach, while novel in its details, is basically nothing new.

Among the novelties is the specific sexual dysfunction suffered by an artist named Arthur. As played by Christopher D. Carver, Arthur appears to be a perfectly average guy, but he has a problem. He's getting married in 10 days, and he can't perform sexually without a certain pair of his father's socks, which his psychiatrist has taken from him.

In a true test of friendship, Arthur asks his friend, Howard, to make an appointment with the psychiatrist and get the socks back.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Block, is the most cartoonish aspect of this entire cartoon-like play, but Tony Colavito's loony portrayal is also the best reason to see it.

A wildly insulting therapist who is even more self-absorbed than Leo Knight's preening, egotistical Howard, Colavito's Dr. Block not only delights in describing himself as a quack and a crackpot, he readily changes places with his patient, plunking himself down on the couch while Howard -- whom Knight mysteriously gives an English accent -- perches on the edge of the desk and takes notes.

It is left for the womenfolk to knock some sense into these men. And, once Michelle Lee Samprey, as Howard's no-nonsense wife, and Katie Carney, as Arthur's Texas-bred fiancee, take charge, you can rest assured that happily-ever-after isn't far off.

"I never get people like you," Dr. Block says when Carney's tough-as-nails Texan strides into his office. "No wonder," she replies.

Given the two-dimensionality of the characters and their situation, director Rodney Bonds' best approach might have been to pull out all the stops and go strictly for yuks, as Colavito does.

That wouldn't make "Psychopathia Sexualis" a better play, but it might make it a funnier one.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

Chance takes Gardner

Grover Gardner may be the most reluctant actor in the Baltimore-Washington area. Yet twice in the last six months he has wound up in leading roles at Everyman Theatre.

The first instance came after the dress rehearsal of Arthur Miller's "The Price" last March. Gardner, who directed the production, stepped into the largest role -- that of the policeman -- when the original actor left due to "artistic differences."

Gardner also expected to serve solely as director of Everyman's current production of Noel Coward's "Nude with Violin." But on the day of the first read-through, Carter Jancke, who was to have played the lead role of the valet, came down with pneumonia.

"Grover read the part just to fill in," explained Vincent Lancisi, the theater's artistic director. "It was not Grover's choice to play the role. What ended up happening, we went to our second and third and fourth choices from auditions months and months before, and all of those actors were booked by then. We almost had to go to New York to find somebody. ... Finally Grover called me and said, `Look, we don't have time to go to New York,' and he offered his services."

Lancisi then assumed the duty of Gardner's co-director. "The irony in all this is that Grover stopped acting in Washington about five years ago. He records books on tape for a living; he loves to direct, so he had given up a life of acting," Lancisi explained. "I've had artistic directors in Washington call and say, `How do you do it? How do you get him on stage?' I always tell them, `Through the most awful circumstances.' "

That's not the only news at Everyman. The theater has hired its first full-time managing director as well as a full-time assistant to the artistic director. The managing director is H. Laurens Wilson, 33. A native of North Carolina who grew up in South Carolina, Wilson has a background in both finance and theater, having worked as a professional actor and, most recently, as a senior associate with Basile Baumann Prost and Associates, an economic development consulting firm in Annapolis.

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