BACK STAGE WEST
March 12, 1998
at Theatre of NOTE
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Let me take this opportunity, as I have before in these pages, to praise the talent and drive of the members of Hollywood's Theatre of NOTE, which lives up to its acronym, "New One-Act Theatre Ensemble," with regular programs of new plays that show a strong link to the outer-limits explorations of the late Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. With that praise, I must also repeat my perennial observation that the writing served by NOTE's efforts, as was ever so at the experimental Padua, varies widely in its stage-worthiness.
Not so widely, actually, in Cahuenga Passages, an evening of three plays with little in common except a sort of reflexively transgressive quality. The first and slightest, Robert Fieldsteel's Cotton, has a textiles salesman (Robert Stoccardo) bemoan a baffling meeting with potential Chinese clients to his placid wife (Nancy Jane Smeets) in their Beijing hotel room. Under Pamela Gordon's dry direction, Stoccardo wittily renders the kind of put-upon almost-loser whose style seems permanently cramped, while Smeets, given little to do, smartly underplays.
Christopher Kelley's haunting Ransomed Soul, which he also directed, is the most polished and promising of the offerings. In a pair of laconic, koan-like interchanges between a pair of lost souls--a man and his sister-in-law, who dares him to cheat with her, and possibly kill her husband--Kelley's writing skates the edge of preciousness with its methodical, willful indirection and perversity. But Kelley's staging, which is as stark and focused as his own set and Jonathan Klein's lighting, has an anomalous, fervent emotion in it, and his actors, Tony Forkush and Katharine Gibson, pull off a kind of impassioned deadpan which is matter-of-factly hypnotic.
The evening closes with Middle Savage, another domestic phantasmagoria from Dennis Miles (his Rosa Mundy, at NOTE in 1996, had a libidinous psycho alternately lusting for and killing visitors to her lonely house). Here Miles envisions a dangerously co-dependent relationship between a mother and her retarded adult son which reaches nearly apocalyptic proportions. Director Kiff Scholl lets Richard Werner, as the challenged son, Middle, run so wild that I feared for the other actors onstage: Cathy Carlton, finely harrowing as the mother who enables Middle's behavior in troubling ways; James Massey, yanked intermittently here out of his usual stiffness; Mari Weiss, sharp but a bit broad as Middle's disapproving aunt, and Peter Konerko as Middle's aimless cousin, who learns the hard way not to tease the animals. A scene in which the sisters played by Carlton and Weiss argue about Middle's care has an authentic, urgent swell, and most of Werner's scenes of excess (nudity and baby powder figure heavily) have a certain brute logic to them, even if it's more the stuff of provocation than of drama.
"Cahuenga Passages," presented by and at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Feb. 27-Apr. 4. (213) 856-8611.