Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gloucester Stage should have buried this one

Francisco Solorzano and Timothy John Smith share back stories in Last Day.
There's been a bit of chatter of late in the blogosphere around new play development; a few influential theatres (such as Washington's Arena Stage) have admitted they don't really look at unsolicited submissions - instead, these are farmed out to be read by volunteers, who don't have the clout to push a worthwhile script up the food chain even when they find one. If we don't already know you, the message goes, then you better make sure we know you, because there's no way we're going to risk a production purely on the merits of your script. Okay? We're just being honest!

Okay, so let's be honest with you, Arena Stage. The unconscious admission here, of course, is that you can't tell a bad script from a good script all by yourselves. Which is a little depressing! But I've begun to wonder if you - and other theatres - might be better off poking around in the slush pile anyhow rather than looking to friends and friends-of-friends for plays that "match your mission." I mean, could the results really be that much weaker than they already are?

Take Last Day, for instance, currently at Gloucester Stage (which has been having a boffo summer season so far). Without the connections of its author, Richard Vetere, to this particular theatre (and its founder, Israel Horowitz) this aimlessly bleak pastiche would have wound up in the circular file, I'm sure. But instead, thanks to Vetere's history (he's had a few minor hits) and relationships, it's up onstage instead, where it really doesn't belong.

Because Last Day is just an exercise in - well, getting through roughly 100 minutes of playing time; it's basically what you'd expect of some smart playwriting student's senior project. The script seems to begin as a gruesome black comedy in the manner of Martin McDonagh: two cemetery hands - one mysteriously taciturn, the other none too bright - are faced with the grim realization that, because their employer is opening up a new "subdivision," a corpse they disposed of long ago is about to come back to haunt them. To be fair, this isn't that bad a set-up - various lacunae in the backstory promise the usual shocking revelations, and there's a sexy girl wandering around the premises to spice up whatever twists may come our way.

If only Vetere had been able to decide on a plot (or theme), his opening gambit might have yielded a small, but efficiently ghoulish, moral satire. But he hasn't been able to come up with either - or rather he hasn't been able to stick to any of the (many) ideas he has come up with. Instead Vetere shuffles through "twists" which almost all depend on off-stage personages (in the interests of economy, he has boiled his onstage cast down to three), or that strike us as emotionally unrealistic (if not flat-out ridiculous). The playwright does get a little traction out of the creepy re-burial of those mysterious remains; but soon after that we can feel the wheels coming off his funeral procession, even as he begins almost frantically piling on the complications.

First, we seem to be looking at a creepy little essay on the loss of (Catholic) faith; then, we're plunged into questions of adultery; then, a possible new murder! But "Who did you sleep with?" soon morphs into "Who could you kill?" which segues, believe it or not, into "Can you forgive her?" By the time you discover that one of the characters is also gay - and that the adulterous wife always assumed her husband was, too (????) - you may find yourself laughing at Last Day for the wrong reasons. I will say that I've never seen quite so many angles packed into a triangle. I suppose that's some sort of distinction. But my recommendation would still be to deep-six this particular script.

But alas, director Eric C. Engel has decided to mount it, and so three good actors must suffer through it every night. The lovely Therese Plaehn probably comes off best - but then she can coast a bit on in-your-face attitude, and believe it or not, despite the fact that she is willing to commit murder to save a marriage to a man she thinks is gay, she actually has to say the fewest number of howlers. Local luminary Timothy John Smith is probably saddled with the most, but despite the odds, he still has his moments. Sexy Francisco Solorzano (who did solid work in Horovitz's own Sins of the Mother a year or two ago) isn't so lucky as the dim bulb whose wife has been cheating on him and whose best friend turns out to want him in the worst possible way - both of whom, btw, egg him on to commit murder at various junctures. All you can think while watching his confused performance is that he, like his character, should have run for the hills long before the curtain rose.

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