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Wordy play 

Too much script in The Rivals, and mixed results with cast in Two Trains Running

The Rivals

Deep Dish Theater
Through March 10

click to enlarge The sappy couple: Josh Long and Anne-Caitlin Donohue in The Rivals - PHOTO BY SHELDON T. BECKER

How would Mrs. Malaprop put it? I think I've got it: "As Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, the lovers in Sheridan's THE RIVALS, Anne-Caitlin Donohue and Josh Long convey the very acne of cupidity."

Wait—don't go reaching for the Funk & Wagnall's. Trust me, it won't help: As the 18th-century English aristocracy's genteel answer to Yogi Berra, Malaprop's reputation—and her utter cluelessness with impressive-sounding words—entirely exceeds her. So to speak.

Nor is her character the only one whom words regularly bedevil in this late Restoration comedy. The neurotic Faukland doggedly talks his intended, Julia, quite out of love with him, while Jack's airy friend, Bob, quips his way into a duel or two, despite his clear inadequacies in self-defense.

Indeed, the same trait threatened—and still threatens—the play itself. Those who've chafed at the 2-hour, 40-minute running time of this Deep Dish production should note that Sheridan's original, unabridged version of the work ran a good hour longer—and was greeted with jeers and thrown fruit on its opening night in 1775.

But even with judicious rewrites, the sheer volume of remaining text still intimidates actors, directors and audiences, and with good reason. If a performer can't surf this small ocean of words, it's a long, labored swim back to shore. If text that should be buoyant turns to ballast, this show sinks along with it.

During The Rivals' second week at Deep Dish Theater, director Charlie Steak's cast was still struggling with the concept, particularly during a 90-minute reading of the first three acts preceding intermission. Perhaps unavoidably, exposition sapped energy levels early, and then later on as Matthew Patterson's whiny Faukland and Curt Kirkoff's Bob disclosed their plights at length.

The counterbalance, then and in the concluding acts, were frequently provided by the women of the cast. As Mrs. Malaprop, Nicole Farmer recited Sheridan's lines of total gibberish with enviable self-assurance and élan. Angela Ray's Julia looked on in appropriate dismay as her suitor, Faukland, verbally imploded. Anne-Caitlin Donohue's acting triumph made lemon meringue of Lydia Languish's absurd ideas about love, as she glared, more or less romantically, at the audience during asides. Meanwhile, Sue Sweezy's amusing period costumes repeatedly seemed on the verge of upholstery, on a set whose illustrated backdrops seemed more reminiscent of Shari Flenniken than the dour Edward Gorey.

The inevitable fireworks between Lydia and Jack and the inopportune disclosure of all intrigues made the last half of The Rivals a fizzy farce, completely worth the price of admission. Unfortunately for the night we saw it, getting there was sometimes less than half the fun.


Two Trains Running

NCCU Theater
Closed Feb. 25

Small wonder there's a funeral always going on across the street in August Wilson's inner-city drama TWO TRAINS RUNNING. The work itself constitutes a dry-eyed epitaph for the Pittsburgh's Hill district. A neighborhood that once epitomized success and affluence for African Americans is being bought and boarded up bit by bit, the first sacrifices in what will ultimately prove a disastrous experiment in urban renewal. Tellingly, the most successful business in the neighborhood is the funeral home across the street.

Wilson's play seems populated by hangers-on: Hildra McCoy's Holloway is an old cuss who's seen them come and go. Stephon Pettway's Sterling is an ex-con without survival skills to hustle on the street; Carlton Cogdell's Hambone is a loser constantly mumbling about an injustice at the local meat market.

Even Memphis Lee, who owns the restaurant and the building where the play takes place, is figuring on quitting the place, when the city buys out the building where his restaurant stands. An era—and a neighborhood—is clearly dying. What's left to be determined is the dignity afforded its inhabitants when they go.

Though noted actor Gil Faison easily met the challenges of the contentious restauranteur, less experienced student actors had difficulty keeping up in this NCCU production. Among those who did, Douglas Bynum showed appropriate flash as a sharp-dressed numbers man, and Pettway's opportunistic Sterling grew on us. McCoy's grizzled old man by now is his trademark—one he should think of growing out of. But when young actors were put on stage before they were ready, other roles remained too quiet, too internalized throughout.


Review

THE GREAT GAME, Duke Theatre Previews, Reynolds Theater—After using theatrical shorthand to sketch in the subcontinental romance of English expatriate explorer George Hayward and spy cartographer Safia Das in colonial India in the 1870s, D. Tucker Smith's historical melodrama—and not-ready-for-prime-time Broadway hopeful—suddenly lurches to London. There it fixates instead, for the rest of the evening, on a brace of supporting characters in the conventional—and prejudiced—Victorian family George understandably left far behind.

But the nagging question of the true center of this story is exacerbated by a graver dilemma: two central roles that remain frozen after an early point in the evening. Once the relationship between George (Marcus Dean Fuller) and Safia (Anjali Bhimani) has been established and circumstances separate the two, the pair fundamentally doesn't change after that. Since they don't, supporting characters—including George's mother, Charlotte (a vinegary Lois Markle), evil older brother Edward (the bombastic David Bishins) and younger sibling Martin (Bobby Steggert)—have to.

In more than a nod to political correctness, Safia's encounters with them empower some to challenge Victorian prejudices and injustice a bit too easily to be believable. In the end, these changes and characters seem too peripheral to fully satisfy.

Though Gregory Gale's sumptuous costumes and Derek McLane's atmospheric, continent-crossing set bathe the show in opulence, insufficient character development in a work about historical cartography leaves the hearts of its two main characters unmapped. (Through March 4.)

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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