This can't be a good sign. After all, The Story is only the second journalist-bashing show of the season, and already I'm feeling exhausted. The first was Deep Dish's Permanent Collection. For its admitted strengths, the constellation of social issues in Thomas Gibbons' script still apparently couldn't have been advanced without the convenient presence of Gillian Crane, a smug, smarmy, opportunistic, ethically suspect agent provocateuse.
Wait. I did mention she's a newspaper reporter, right?
Close on its heels at Raleigh Little Theatre is Tracey Scott Wilson's play, in which at least three of the six major characters are ultimately revealed to be smug, smarmy, opportunistic ... well, you get the point.
Nor is this the last. Next month, Playmakers Rep presents The Front Page, about the extremely smug, smarmy, opportunistic and so on. Which, the theater's Web site assures us, will explore "themes as relevant today as they were in 1928."
(Insert heavy, resigned sigh here.)
I mean, where's the love, people?
All ribbing aside, the surreal experience of watching Wilson's trendy issue play commit more or less the same crime it condemns in its central character redefines irony.
The Story is loosely based on the "Jimmy's World" affair, in which Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize and fired in 1980 after her gripping story on childhood drug abuse was proven to have been fabricated. In that case, the issue at hand was not the existence of childhood drug abuse, which no one denies as an unfortunate part of inner-city life in our nation's capital. Instead, the question was did these specific people--an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, and his mother's live-in boyfriend who turned him on to drugs--actually exist?
But shouldn't the same question be put to the straw--or is it paper?--men and women who populate this glib but deeply problematic play? As opposed to the folks we meet in Permanent Collection or works like Jane Martin's Keely and Du, it's impossible to imagine any of Wilson's one-dimensional characters having a life off-stage. That's because they're all too busy Illustrating a Problem.
African-American editor Pat (given gratifying intensity by Jackie Marriott) exists only to provide an absurdly oversimplified indictment of the newsroom politics of racial uplift, slanting her section toward good or neutral news while burying coverage of any substantive problems in her community. Reporter Neil (which George Hill portrays with oleaginous charm) ostensibly warns with his black update of the "good old boy." And central character Yvonne (whose thankless role is played with grace by Chaunesti Lyon) has no internal integrity--either as a journalist or as a dramatic character. What motivates her remains a mystery until three closing lines or so "explain" her behavior--whereupon it's roundly condemned again.
Tabloid journalism, meet tabloid theater: similarly reductive, similarly exploitational, and focused more on lurid acts than on understanding the human foibles that precipitate them.
We now gratefully move from Wilson's staccato emotional shorthand to its inverse, the long form, mastered by Eugene O'Neill in his posthumous work, Long Day's Journey into Night. O'Neill's most overtly autobiographical play probes, at times in excruciating detail, the double-binds of the family in which he grew up. It's hard to imagine a series of relationships more efficiently designed to keep all parties in perpetual checkmate than the ones evinced here by mother Mary, father James, and brothers Edmund and Jamie Tyrone.
Under Rachel Klem's direction in this Ghost and Spice production, Lenore Lee Field, John Murphy, newcomer Josh Long and Jeff Alguire locate the love, the pain--and above all, the unmerciful, unsparing critical eyes--that all members in this family possess. Though we questioned Alguire's character at the beginning of Saturday's performance, all doubts were erased by the end of Jamie's self-indictment in Act IV. The result is a family as car crash--one that unfolds slowly and horribly, even though it's punctuated by generous laughter at points.
****The Miser , Streetsigns Center--With a show like this, who can be stingy with praise? Elizabeth Corley's deft adaptation presents Moliere without the starch, satirizing selected commedia dell'arte conventions along with 18th-century society. Intentionally awkward double- and triple-castings pay increasing comic dividends among this strong septet of actors on Rob Hamilton's curdling créme-colored set.
Jordan Smith defines the title character, while Sarah Kocz plays his daughter, Elise--and two added roles occasioned by schizophrenic servant Master Jacques--to a comic (and aerobic) turn. Chris Chiron acquits himself well as foppish son Cleante, and newcomer Stephen LaFerriere gives savor to Valere, Elise's love interest, while Mariette Booth demonstrates significant growth here as Cleante's intended, Mariane. Sharlene Thomas is redoubtable as always in supporting roles, while Gabriel Graetz raised blanching to the level of fine art as hapless servant Stockfish. Don't miss a suave George Spelvin's turn in the role of Anselme. (Closes Sept. 18.)
****Permanent Collection , Deep Dish Theater--Loosely based upon the Barnes Foundation's controversial moving of its art museum from the suburbs to inner-city Philadelphia, this polemical drama deftly explores issues involving aesthetics, economics and control when it pointedly inquires how race factors into each of these issues in the worlds of American philanthropy and high culture. Who decides--or is permitted to decide--what is "beautiful" and what has value? Who gets to see such items and under what conditions? How available--or answerable--are they to contemporary culture?
After Sterling North, an African-American businessman with no training in modern art, assumes control of a museum filled with it from art historian Paul Barrow, conflict arises when North tries to display African art buried for decades in the foundation's basement.
The pair, admirably played Byron Jennings II and John Paul Middlesworth, ultimately become position people in this debate of a play which critiques the limits of its characters' artistic and cultural visions. David Ring is enjoyable as the curmudgeonly founder, while Angela Ray's executive assistant, Kanika, probes the stiffness in the positions that surround her. (Closes Sept. 17.)
***The Donkey Show , Qat Productions, Ringside--Yes, the characters are slapdash; the dialogue (when audible) decidedly sub-Shakespearean. But are these really the best benchmarks to apply to this rough and ready burlesque on the Bard? Randy Weiner's improbable adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transplants the Faerie King and Queen from their enchanted Athenian wood to an early-'80s disco on the Lower East Side, where Oberon's a nightclub kingpin and pop singer Tytania takes costume tips from Cher.
Actors jettison the original text, hijacking lyrics from disco laureates Anita Ward, Peter Brown and Amii Stewart to unevenly advance the plot. Those and costumer Thomas Mauney's advanced reminiscences in 1980s leisure suits and lounge-wear (including a pitch-perfect tribute to David Bowie's "Serious Moonlight" phase) constitute the guiltiest pleasures on display here.
The technical term for all this is "a hoot." But the single joke has pretty well played out by the end of its single hour on stage. The admittedly thin adaptation dismisses almost all minor characters, simultaneously reducing the plot to its essentials and lowest sexual denominators.
Still, this trippy little sideshow's not without its charms. Just leave the Riverside Shakespeare home. And keep an eye on your drinks. (Closes Sept. 17.)
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.