Duo duel over the end of their marriage in `Stage Struck'


July 29, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A lot of blanks are fired in the thriller Stage Struck, but not all of them are in the script. Some are the result of a lack of firepower in Theatre on the Hill's production.

Written by prolific British playwright Simon Gray, this mystery about the toxic marriage of a famous actress and her frustrated stage-manager husband has plenty of amusing theatrical references. But despite several second-act surprises, it falls short in the spine-tingling department.

The production does have a few assets, among them, the suave performance of Charlie Smith as Robert, a man who, having failed as stage manager, actor and then playwright, now discovers that he is being summarily dismissed as a husband as well. The bulk of the play falls to this character, who is determined to use his stage-management background to outwit his cruel, self-centered wife.

But while Smith brings a cool-headed, in-control manner to his portrayal, it's not enough to compensate for the show's not-so-special effects and Josh Selzer's ho-hum direction, which mute the fear factor instead of heightening it. At one point, for example, when a supposed corpse rises from the dead, the low-key staging is more blase than startling.

As Robert's wife, a West End diva, Julie Herber comes across as merely spoiled and cold-hearted, with little indication of the talent that propelled her to stardom. As the couple's tenant, a working-class graduate student, Mike Pitsikoulis tends to speak too quickly to be fully understood. And as the sole American character in the show - a psychotherapist with secrets of his own - Brian K. Irons overdoes his character's shaking, quaking nervousness.

Although the play's main special effect is too hokey to be credible, designer Ira Domser's set - the stylish modern living room of a posh country house - indicates the high technical level the production might have achieved overall.

Traditionally, Theatre on the Hill has produced musicals on its main stage. This year it switched to a comedy (The Foreigner) and a mystery. An effective mystery, however, can be almost as tricky to pull off as a musical. Even the final scare that Stage Struck attempts to deliver fell flat on the night I attended; the audience didn't realize the show was over, much less that it was supposed to conclude with one last fright.

Theatre on the Hill performs in McDaniel College's Alumni Hall, 2 College Hill, Westminster. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Aug. 7. Tickets are $19. Call 410-857-2448.

Fraidy cats

Almost all of the characters in Kathleen Barber's romantic comedy A Different Kind of Love are afraid of something - sometimes several somethings.

Robin and Jeff, a college-age couple, are afraid of ending up ordinary, and they're also afraid of sex. Robin's mother's fiance, Louis, is afraid of not getting a promotion at work. Robin's mother and Jeff's widowed father are both afraid of love.

And, oh yes, just about everybody is afraid of bats, mice and spiders, all of which pop up in forced stabs at comic relief, in this Baltimore Playwrights Festival production at the Vagabond Players.

Comparing and contrasting young love with mature love is an appealing idea, and there's reason to believe that Barber, a veteran festival playwright, would be on firm ground here. After all, romance and familial relationships are subjects she has tackled in the past.

But this latest offering suffers from plot holes and a production that, under Linda Chambers' direction, tries too hard just about from start to finish. Here's a sample hole: Robin and Jeff arrive home from college and announce they've dropped out and are getting married in a few days. But weeks pass with no mention of why the wedding hasn't taken place.

By the end of the play, Jeff and Robin gain some maturity and their parents get a second chance to feel young and in love. Barber's dialogue includes a few witty exchanges, but the script is also replete with corny lines on the order of "He made me feel like a woman."

The performances, particularly those of Lynda McClary and Laurel Peyrot as mother and daughter, are often overwrought. Mark Steckbeck's relatively restrained depiction of Jeff's dad, however, is a welcome exception.

Indeed, it's telling that the production's best and most credible scene is also its quietest one. At the start of the second act, we discover that Peyrot's naive Robin and Ian Bonds' childish Jeff are already bored with their new life - it's a scene that succeeds without a bat, mouse or spider in sight.

Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 8. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 410-563-9135.

Toting up `Tempest'

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of The Tempest, which ended its three-week run in the Evergreen House meadow on Sunday, set festival records for box office and attendance for an outdoor show.

"Revenues were up by 10 percent. Attendance increased slightly, to a little more than 1,600 people," said James Kinstle, artistic director. The festival has produced five plays outdoors at Evergreen in the past four years. The previous records were set by As You Like It last summer.

Kinstle said that if Mother Nature had cooperated, The Tempest's figures might have been even higher. "Our closing weekend was hampered by overcast skies and the only rainout. Usually the final weekend is our biggest weekend," he said.

Next up, students in the festival's Shakespeare Summer educational program will perform an hour-long version of As You Like It at the theater (St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave.) at 8 p.m. Aug. 14 and 5 p.m. Aug. 15. Admission is $5. For more information, call 410-366-8596.

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