Deep Dish Theater Company
Through May 19
The Gratitude of Wasps is the first world-premiere production from Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater Company. The script, by playwright and Indy contributor Adam Sobsey, is billed as a "comic drama" and boasts a perfect setup for either tears or laughter: The Vacation Gone Bad.
Halfway through a North Carolina beach trip, two pairs of longtime friends—one a passively manipulative psychologist and his blocked-novelist wife (Mark Filiaci and MaryKate Cunningham), the other a doom-haunted scientist and a flirty romantic (Charlie Steak and Jeri Lynn Schulke)—are trying to prevent a messy encounter between another couple whose marriage is on the rocks. This third pair is never seen, but they're represented on stage by their precocious 17-year-old daughter (Julia Yarwood), whose wish to be treated as an adult is undercut by fear of being abandoned.
Over a day and night, these five drink, reminisce and intellectualize about cosmic issues and petty resentments, and reveal their flaws and resilience. Moment by moment, the talk is witty and engaging, but the play tackles so many themes, and gives them such equal treatment, that its central message gets lost. I never felt that desperate vibe familiar to everyone who's endured a bad vacation—the cycle of trying to have fun and failing, realizing you're failing, and having even less fun as a result—and the script provides too few glimpses of what drew these characters together in the first place. That weakness was reflected in set designer Christa Devitt's airy and attractive but too tidy beach house: I didn't believe these folks had already spent a whole week in it, especially not with a half-dozen (offstage) kids.
The production's chief assets are Paul Frellick's surefooted direction and the ensemble acting of the five-person cast, particularly Schulke's tightly wound but goodhearted wife and Yarwood's conflicted teen. The Gratitude of Wasps doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts, but those parts offer entertainment enough. —V. Cullum Rogers
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater
Through May 6
The artists who populate the area's small, independent theater companies face daunting odds. These are people with day jobs, along with with a few high school students, who all have other commitments and responsibilities. They make sacrifices to find the time for theater, and when the seams show, it's easy to forgive.
But in the case of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater's production of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, the company's reach too far exceeds its grasp. This by no means condemns it outright: John Broderick Jones does a solid job as inflammatory radio host Barry Champlain, despite being too young for the role. He holds court with a strong voice and a good sense of Barry's inclination toward perversity, as when he tells the story of seeing a lovable golden retriever hit by a car shortly after being ordered by his producer to promote their sponsor's dog food.
The biggest problem is the cast's voiceover work. Obviously bound by necessity, the supporting cast members each portrayed different callers into Barry's show. Perhaps hoping to disguise their voices, the cast resorts to accents, almost all of which are jarring and unconvincing. We get an environmental activist inexplicably speaking in a bizarre Irish accent, a Valley Girl (although the play is set in Cleveland), an old man who sounds like Jimmy Stewart, and several Southern drawls (again, Cleveland?).
The unfortunate thing about this is that it detracts hugely from the intensity of the play, which is tightly constructed and contains wonderfully creative and vitriolic rants. The stakes never seem high at all, and the audience is sadly left with a lot of dead air. —Jack McDonald
Poona the F-Dog
Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through May 5
The proverb goes, "A tree never hits the automobile except in self-defense," and Jeff Goode's Poona the F-dog & Other Plays for Children is the party at the scene of the accident. The play is better than Raleigh Ensemble Player's production, but the ensemble's synchronous enthusiasm and energy make it a worthwhile way to spend a Friday night. There are some catchy musical numbers led by Poona's hilarious Fairy God Phallus (Brett Wilson), including the tequila song: "It'll turn anyone from a nun to a whore." The play is filled both with (relatively) subtle humor and the more obvious. While the motivation of shock value over wit has a few cameos, Poona the F-dog provides a much-needed voice in today's world with clever commentary on everything from sex-ed, mass media and consumerism to cyber crime.—Megan Stein (reviewed April 25)
Through May 6
The connection between Tony Kushner and 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille may not be instantly apparent, but one would be hard-pressed to find a text better suited to a Kushner adaptation than Corneille's The Illusion. A story centering on the conjuring of dramatic illusions, it is an exploration of the nature of theater and theatricality, one of Kushner's favorite topics. Joseph Haj's Playmakers' production is appropriately filled with such theatrical magic, using fog machines, onstage rain and a striking, imaginative set to frame the story of Pridamont (David Adamson), a lawyer who is shown visions of his estranged son by Ray Dooley's Alcandre, a cave-dwelling magician. Dooley's speeches late in the second half regarding the transient nature of all worthwhile things—theater, for example, or love—lend significant emotional heft in what could easily have been a frothy period piece with some neat effects. —Jack McDonald (reviewed April 25)