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Monday, August 30, 2010

Return to Sender: GroundUP's Letter from Algeria
needs more postage after out-of-town tryouts

Posted by on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 6:47 PM

Letter_From_Algeria.png
  • GroundUP Productions graphic by Wade Dansby 3
LETTER FROM ALGERIA
1 1/2 stars
out of 5
GroundUP Productions
Kenan Theater, UNC
Closed Aug. 29


Beware, New York City: Ali is coming!

(At last: Now I know what Masaji Sieji must have felt like in the 1954 classic, Godzilla.)

As a character, this one-woman juggernaut is Margo Channing with a chainsaw, a drama school diva able to size up a room with a glance (well, a dorm room, anyway), and lay waste to its inhabitants with her invariably oversized gestures, her raw—or, at least, uncooked—sexuality, and a literally endless series of terribly witty putdowns. Though this baby barracuda steamrolls over all interpersonal borders, somehow the boys always come back for more. She’s insuperable, she’s insufferable, she’s…

…absolutely unbelievable. Or at least, the situation is. And that’s a major problem for playwright Michael Walker—and an even bigger dilemma for audiences awaiting his LETTER FROM ALGERIA. For after its world premiere last weekend, in a show by GroundUP Productions involving three UNC undergraduates—and actor, playwright and former Temple Theater artistic director Jerry Sipp—this work’s New York debut is slated for Oct. 29.

That’s not a lot of time to correct a first act as fundamentally unbalanced as the one we saw during Algeria’s out-of-town tryouts Sunday night.

For after effectively framing what’s to come as a tragedy viewed in retrospect, Walker lets his anti-heroine run roughshod over scenes in which two roommates, second-rank American students in a second-rank study abroad program, first meet and get to know one another.

Or at least try to, when they can get an occasional word in edgewise.

Director Kate Middleton basically throws actor Sarah Berk, who we’ve enjoyed in other work, over a cliff in this thankless, one-dimensional role. The only problem is, I’m not certain anything else had the slightest chance of making Walker’s dysfunctional script actually work.

For at present, Ali’s character is what we call a spoiler throughout the first act. She gets to win every argument, she always gets her way and her absurd dominance meets with no believable pushback until long after we’ve given up on the whole affair. Also, almost every line of hers is a killer—a trait, ironically, that further compromises her believability. Even Oscar Wilde wasn't always this on.

Why do Josh Wolonick and Bryan Burton's comparatively milquetoast roommates let Ali flatten them both? What sinister plan does international man of mystery — and equal-opportunity letch — Hugo (given a welcome dose of savoir faire by Jerry Sipp) have for them on his estate in Algerie?

By the end of Act One, I'll freely confess I didn't care. When a crashing boor like Ali crashed as hard as she did throughout Walker's first act, I took my first opportunity to flee her presence, and left this unfortunate work at intermission.

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