`In the Mood' for drama, suspension at Olney

theater review

September 14, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Some people have clouds hanging over their heads. The characters in Irene Wurtzel's In the Mood have a sculpture hanging over theirs.

It's a huge, abstract, pointed sculpture that is being carved by an artist named Jennifer Workman at the start of the play. But it is menacingly suspended-like a giant dagger - above the actors' heads throughout most of director Jim Petosa's production at Olney Theatre Center.

The sculpture is only a metaphorical threat. The real threat is posed by Jennifer's husband, Neil, who is an undersecretary of state and suffers from what appears to be life-threatening bipolar disorder. After representing the United States in peace talks in the Middle East, Neil returns to Washington convinced he is "blessed ... with a gift from God." He acts, however, as if he thinks he is God - a deity who can bring world peace but thinks nothing of cheating on his devoted wife or stabbing his devoted boss in the back.

In the Mood is the inaugural production in Olney's New Play Initiative, and although Petosa and Wurtzel have been working on it for several years, the script still feels rough and over-written. A case study of a power broker on the edge of sanity, it offers few fresh insights, unless Wurtzel is suggesting that artists are sane and government officials are crazy.

The production's chief virtue is Christopher Lane's forceful depiction of Neil as a smart, charismatic diplomat whose ego and brain chemistry gradually but relentlessly overtake all of the qualities Jennifer once loved.

MaryBeth Wise's portrayal of Jennifer, however, is too flat to effectively convey that love or her character's eventual despair. In artists' terms, the play is a double portrait, but Wise's half is merely a sketch. And, though Neil's doting mother isn't supposed to be too bright, actress Halo Wines comes across as silly when she attempts to deliver her character's foolish and contradictory speeches.

By the time the Workmans' son (Tim Spears) is reciting Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night," the play has descended into Lifetime Channel cliches. And, though its title may misleadingly evoke a romantic comedy, In the Mood is clearly intended to offer a serious look at serious issues. At this point, however, like Jennifer's sculpture, it still feels like a work in progress.

In the Mood continues through Sept. 24 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Tickets are $34-$44. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneythea tre.org.

Remembering Roche

Nancy Roche, the longtime Center Stage trustee and board president who died Friday at age 64, helped strengthen and shape that theater.

But her love of theater was so all-encompassing, she also wanted to understand it from a critic's perspective. In summer 2000, Roche was a critic fellow at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute, where I serve on the faculty.

Although she could have afforded fancier digs, she shared quarters in an unairconditioned dorm with other budding critics and the O'Neill's actors.

When critic fellows decades younger complained about being overtired and overworked, Roche plunged in enthusiastically, meeting every deadline and savoring every minute. After her summer, Roche helped start a trustee residency at the O'Neill, which offers arts trustees a chance to learn about the development of new work.

In The Art of Governance, the 2005 primer for trustees that she edited with Jaan Whitehead, the editors wrote: "Trustees can make a difference in how well - or whether - their institutions flourish. For those who believe in the essential value of the arts, making such a difference can be a genuine contribution to our culture." Roche made a genuine contribution. The beneficiaries included Center Stage, the O'Neill Theater Center, regional theater boards across the country and any actor, director or critic fortunate enough to cross her path.

Cabaret series begins

The Baltimore Theatre Alliance's second annual cabaret series showcasing local talent begins Sunday in a new location, Sammy's Trattoria, 1200 N. Charles St. Doors open at 5 p.m.; showtime is 6 p.m. Tickets cost $10 in advance; $12 at the door. A subscription to the seven-show series costs $60. Proceeds benefit the Alliance. Subsequent dates are: Oct. 22, Dec. 10, Jan. 14, Feb. 25, April 15 and May 20. For more information, call 410-662-9945 or e-mail info@baltimoreperforms .org.

A reading of `Loft'

Loft, a new play by Baltimore native Jeff Cohen, will receive its first staged reading at the Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave., at 3 p.m. Sunday. Cohen's Men of Clay - which was read at the Creative Alliance last summer before an off-Broadway run in April - focused on his father and his tennis cronies at Druid Hill Park. Cohen e-mails from his home in New York that the new play is about an artist (who is "kinda like me") and was influenced by, and written in memory of, his stepfather, Josh Fendell.

Tickets to the reading of Loft, whose cast includes local actors Stan Weiman and Rosemary Knower, are $13. Call 410-542-4900, ext. 239.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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