`Holidays In' is festival offering that passes test

THEATER

Attention to detail, good construction are characteristics that make this a gem

July 28, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival specializes in new, untested scripts produced by community theaters that frequently pride themselves on giving a chance to new, untested actors and directors.

It can be a recipe for chaos, but once in a while a genuinely strong script receives a genuinely strong production. That's exactly the case with a sharp, well-constructed comedy called Holidays In. Written by Jim Sheehan and directed by Kathleen Amshoff, it marks an auspicious festival debut for Run of the Mill Theater.

Structured as a series of scenes set on major holidays beginning with Labor Day and continuing around the calendar to the Fourth of July, the play is a romantic triangle involving a disengaged, couch-potato husband (Ben Lawrence), his frustrated wife (Janel Miley) and their libidinous friend (Richard Fawley).

The scenes follow a pattern whose minor changes pile up until they cause a major shift in the couple's lives. Most scenes contain a monologue delivered by the husband, usually a reverie about food (Lawrence is especially comical imitating a cylinder of cranberry sauce sliding out of the can). And every scene includes a visit from Fawley, as a crude, overgrown frat boy type, who - despite his boorish behavior - truly seems to want to restore the spark to his friends' marriage.

The way he ignites that spark may be questionable, but when Fawley makes his final appearance - in an uncharacteristic manner that conjures up influences ranging from Tennessee Williams to Thornton Wilder - the play gets a surrealistic jolt.

Holidays In starts out as a humorous look at the hollow, monotonous way in which holidays are often celebrated. It ends up as a more meaningful look at the hollow monotony that can threaten a marriage.

And by the way, pay attention to the changing decorations on Miley's sweater and Lawrence's tie. These small touches in Laura Ridgeway's costume designs reflect the attention to detail that characterizes this entire little gem of a production.

Holidays In is the second half of a double bill that begins with Rosemary Frisino Toohey's Socks, a short, sprightly curtain-raiser in which four actors portray the stray socks left behind in a Laundromat dryer.

Each actor is dressed - and behaves - in a style befitting the wearer of his or her type of sock. For example, Tim Elliott, who plays a gym sock, is dressed in tennis whites and acts like a jock. A performer named JaHipster, who plays a trouser sock, assumes the manner of a sophisticated businesswoman. Steve Lichtenstein, as a thinning dress sock, looks and acts like a sleazy, washed-up salesman. And Kimberly Hannold, as a leg warmer, is a graceful, leotard-clad dancer.

Toohey tosses in some amusing one-liners, as well as a bit of existential angst and even some romance, as the abandoned socks seek partners. The play is somewhat reminiscent of a piece with the same title by local playwright Kimberley Lynne, which was produced at the Theatre Project in 1997. That play found a Shakespearean destiny for stray socks. This one supplies a less lofty, but delightfully silly, answer to one of the great questions of our time: What happens to lost socks?

Run of the Mill performs at Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 7. Tickets are $12. Call 410-796-1555.

`$40 Million'

At Fell's Point Corner Theatre, Stephen LaRocque's $40 Million, If You Want It is a far less satisfactory Playwrights Festival offering. The plot concerns an anonymous bequest to an obscure psychology institute. Under Barry Feinstein's direction, the tone shifts jarringly, which is indicative of the script's identity problem.

The play begins like a sitcom, with Richard Cutting's bumbling professor character getting cake frosting all over his face and hair. Then there's a glint of romance when his former lover (Jennifer Robers) pops up unexpectedly. Next comes an air of mystery surrounding the identity of the benefactor as well as the nature of the work done by the institute. Hint: The nationality of the institute's head (Helenmary Ball) is not coincidental.

But there's no perceptible chemistry between professor and former lover; the institute's true function is revealed in a hunk of exposition; and there's even a totally extraneous character, a saleswoman who appears to exist solely to add yet another dose of sitcom humor.

Those pesky conflicting tones, however, are the major difficulty. $40 Million may be full of mysteries, but the biggest mystery is what type of play it wants to be.

Showtimes at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 7. Tickets are $14. Call 410-276-7837.

Book signing

A book signing and reception celebrating the publication of The Art of Governance: Boards in the Performing Arts, will be held at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Published by Theatre Communications Group, the book is an essay collection edited by Nancy Roche, former Center Stage board president, and Jaan Whitehead.

The co-editors will speak at the reception, as will Ben Cameron, executive director of TCG. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-986-4000, ext. 4232, or e-mail bcavaiol@centerstage.org.

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