When the threads of morality begin to unravel

THEATER

`Return' about man who wants fame, and pays a hefty price

Theater Column

March 20, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

One of the cleverest bits of staging in director Kasi Campbell's production of The Return to Morality (a political fable) by Baltimore native Jamie Pachino is the way actors are whooshed off the stage while seated in wheeled desk chairs.

It's a simple but telling device in a play about a man who allows the direction of his life to be manipulated by others, then refuses to take responsibility for the consequences. It's also a rare subtle touch in a satire that, despite its timeliness, loses much of its impact due to a combination of heavy-handedness and a protagonist who defies credibility.

That protagonist, Arthur Kellogg, is a college professor whose naivete would rival a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. Played at Columbia's Rep Stage with childlike wonder by Jack E. Vernon, Arthur has written a satirical novel called The Return to Morality that takes "an existing extreme to a logical absurd" and advocates everything from the return of slavery to enforced Christianity.

The book attracts the interest of a bigwig publisher, unctuously portrayed by Nigel Reed. The publisher is convinced he can make a killing by promoting the book as nonfiction. In truth, he initially believes it is nonfiction, which should be Arthur's first warning.

Topical as a play about the dangers of extremism may be, Pachino - a former actress who is now a screenwriter as well as playwright - wrote The Return to Morality several years ago, and her inspiration dates back even earlier, to an actual publishing hoax involving a book titled Report from Iron Mountain. A 1967 parody of a top-secret government study on the dire economic consequences of peace, Iron Mountain was promoted as the real thing and eventually adopted by right-wing groups.

In The Return to Morality, the publisher convinces Arthur that revealing the truth to the gullible press and public after they have swallowed his supposedly extremist views will be the ultimate marketing coup. But it's Arthur who turns out to be hopelessly gullible, as well as highly susceptible to the allure of fame and fortune.

Rep Stage's supporting cast proves admirably versatile in multiple roles. Especially notable are Reed, who also plays parts ranging from a Howard Stern-style shock jock to the sinister head of the Republican National Committee; Foster Solomon (from a West Indian bartender to 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley); and Jeanne Dillon (from a dippy television makeup girl to an all-too-savvy teen on the make).

The Return to Morality may be able to get away with secondary characters who are little more than cartoons, but Arthur needs a core of truth. Even for satire, this nebbishy, unsympathetic character - and Vernon's wide-eyed portrayal of him - is an overstated and obvious pawn. It might have helped if we got a glimpse of the moral fiber he has supposedly lost. As it is, Arthur's wife (Allyson Currin) can't believe his behavior, and neither do we. What results is a play that could have been a trenchant cautionary tale but is all too easy to dismiss.

Rep Stage is the theater in residence at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, and 1 p.m. March 27, through March 30. Tickets are $10-$22. Call 410-772-4900.

Reception for Holder

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Arena Players will honor playwright Laurence Holder at a 7 p.m. reception on March 29 at the theater, 801 McCulloh St. A novelist and poet as well as prolific playwright, Holder has won several AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee) awards, honoring black theater. Many of his plays are historical and biographical dramas, including Zora Neale Hurston, M: The Mandela Saga and When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, about the conflict between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

The reception is free for ticket holders of Arena Players' production of Paul Osborne's Morning's at Seven, which opens a four-weekend run tomorrow. Call 410-728-6500.

`Bluff' at Johns Hopkins

Baltimore-born actor John Astin, a Johns Hopkins University alumnus now in his third year teaching acting and directing at the university, will perform Jeffrey Sweet's Bluff with four of his students in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, and 2:15 p.m. Sunday. Bluff is an account of a romance that blooms between a young couple who come to the aid of a victim of gay bashing.

Best known as Gomez in the 1960s TV series The Addams Family, Astin studied drama at Hopkins in the 1950s and is spearheading an effort to rekindle its theater program. Bluff is sponsored by Theatre Hopkins, which suggests a $10 ticket donation. Call 410-516-7159.

Cultural symposium

Arena Stage in Washington will present a daylong symposium on March 29 titled "Cultural Capital and the Dynamics of African American Performance." The symposium is in conjunction with Ain't Misbehavin', the co-production that originated at Center Stage in January and begins a nine-week run in Washington tomorrow.

The morning session will focus on African-American musical theater, and the afternoon will examine the impact of African-American cultural performances on the Washington area. The day will also include performances by the Sweet Heaven Kings gospel and percussion choir and the Smooth & EZ Hand Dance Troupe. The symposium will take place from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street, S.W., Washington. Admission is free but reservations are required. Call 202-234-5782.

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