The later, the better

Black Box's one-act play festival
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 18, 2010

Theater_Cherylee_main
SIGHT GAG CITY Cherylee Dumas and Alex Rotella in Superhero.

Showcases for local talent tend to be hit-or-miss affairs. Although it provides a few bull's-eye successes, Black Box Theatre's 4th Annual One-Act Play Festival (through August 22) unfortunately is freighted with misses.

Performed in the small black-wall theater space of the Artists' Exchange in Cranston and directed by Rich Morra, there are 10 short plays selected this year. Little vignettes like these, usually single-scene slices of life, rarely benefit from elaborate sets and props, and in fact usually are aided by the focus that a naked set allows. We are not distracted from the characters and their brief stories.

Oddly, the only three plays that work wonderfully, in both the writing and acting, come at the end, along with an entertaining one that stops short of wonderful. Apparently, the weakness of the earlier plays here was apparent when it came time to sequence them, and leaving audiences with an upbeat feeling seemed the best idea. Sorry, but even artsy-fartsy folk have better memories than that, even if they're not taking notes. My notes on five of the plays have "wince" (my shorthand for dreadful acting) scribbled down. Too often competent actors here have to perform against woefully amateurish ones, poor dears. That's inexcusable, since there is plenty of decent acting talent around, even in community theater quarters.

The 411 on those 3-1/2 successes follows.

The hit of the evening is the closer, Superhero, by Mark Harvey Levine. Hilarious. Alex Rotella remains straightfaced as Leonard, self-proclaimed superhero, replete in tablecloth-cape, yellow rubber gloves, and Superman boxer shorts over his chinos. Sight Gag City. At the opening, Cherylee Dumas as Rachel is "tied up" in a chair, but she scratches her nose when it itches. Leonard bursts in to the rescue, but it's not a role-playing sex game. As plain ol' Leonard, he feels powerless about such nemeses as the old Claw Woman and her cat minions down the hall in 316. He doesn't yet know what his superpowers are, he just knows that he must take control of his hitherto passive life, and he wants Rachel to know that she can too.

On the serious side is Pat Hegnauer's The Son, a difficult balancing act because it could easily topple into sentimentality. Between the writerly restraint and the acting skill, that doesn't happen. This is a particularly demanding play for directing and performing, because so much depends on timing the interplay between Amy (Christin Goff) and her recently deceased son's friend, Tom (Alex Rotella). Her son died a couple of weeks before, struck by a car while jogging. College chum Tom, just arrived in town, hasn't learned about it until now. He comes to say hey to his friend on his birthday and meets his mother, a widow who had only her grown child left. Their understandings emerge gradually. It's a subtly touching interplay.

Jeremiah's Choice, by Dennis B. Blais, follows in stark contrast. The tone here is fraught with tension, and the playwright's craftsmanship is top-notch. As things open, Jeremiah (Robert C. Reynolds) is wordlessly worried, and Kristoff (Mark Carter) is declaring his sincere friendship, telling Jeremiah that whatever terrible thing he did, he can tell him and share the pain. Jeremiah is in deep with a couple of loan shark brothers, but that's not the worst of it, not by a long shot. Before the one-two-punch revelation at the end — which actually does reveal rather than just O. Henry us — the suspense builds exquisitely.

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