Trying to solve a Titanic mystery

`Road' stronger half of one-act duo at Olney Theatre Center

Theater Review

July 31, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A young woman is found floating on an ice slab in the North Atlantic. She is dressed in old-fashioned clothing and has spoken only one word: "Titantic." Purportedly, she is a survivor of the infamous 1912 sinking. But the time is the present. And she hasn't aged.

Figuring out exactly who she is and what she's up to is the ostensible plot of Jeffrey Hatcher's Scotland Road, the stronger half of a double bill of one-act plays produced by the Potomac Theatre Project, now in its eighth season in residence at Olney Theatre Center.

But Scotland Road is more than a mere mystery - or at least more than a single mystery. Hatcher's fascinatingly enigmatic play is also part science fiction and part psychodrama. In the end, no one on stage is exactly who he or she appears to be.

Under Chris Hayes' direction, Kristen Connolly gives a haunting portrayal of the unflappable young woman who finds herself being studied like a laboratory animal.

A rich American named John has her under 24-hour surveillance in a remote, clinic-like setting, where she is cared for by a doctor - played with a strong pragmatic streak by Lee Mikeska Gardner - who specializes in working with those who can speak, but won't.

Steven Carpenter's John seems determined to prove his patient is a fraud, but he's mesmerized by her at the same time. Then the doctor locates a frail woman who is the last bona fide living Titanic survivor (compellingly portrayed by Vivienne Shub). The truth appears to be at hand.

But truth turns out to be relative in this play in which determining identity is no simple matter. Though Hayes' engrossing production will leave you with questions, it will also stay with you like an eerie, inscrutable dream.

Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke leaves much less to the imagination, perhaps because it was originally written for television. Tara Giordano plays an idealistic young businesswoman named Selby who leaves her corporate job to work for the charitable division of the same corporation.

Selby is convinced that "charity is by definition nonpolitical." But Churchill's play blatantly and repetitively proves the fallacy of that thinking. The playwright makes her point - and then makes it again and again - in a series of vignettes whose intended madcap flavor feels forced under Cheryl Faraone's direction.

A few of the more successful satirical sketches include: a mother telling her fussy-eater child that if he doesn't eat his dinner, she's sending his food to India - along with an unexpected bonus; Giordano's Selby trying out a series of increasingly adamant and, yes, political, public service ads; and a man paying for a bottle of whiskey and being handed a pink stuffed pig after being informed that the same amount of money would buy a pig in a developing country.

Of the large cast, David Bryan Jackson is properly smug as the head of Selby's corporation (his not-so-subtle name is Mr. Price); Richard Pilcher is unctuous as a politician determined to prove that everything in the world (except his beloved pet snakes - another overt symbol) is political; James Slaughter is droll in such snooty roles as a celebrity chef and an Arab sheik; and Carpenter shows versatility as characters ranging from an evangelizing rock star to the East Indian director of a tea company.

Churchill can be a highly inventive writer, and she's a favorite of the Potomac Theatre Project, which also produced this play in Washington in 1993. But her politics in The After-Dinner Joke are too obvious and, at least in this production, her humor too strained.

One-Acts

What: Scotland Road and The After-Dinner Joke

Where: Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and in repertory with Pinter Briefs through Aug. 11

Admission: $10

Call: 301-924-3400

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