First of all, I just have to say I love any group of theater people like 3AM Productions that would think to do a double feature of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” and David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity In Chicago” and call the thing “Dumb/Sex.” And the strange thing is, the two scripts are actually a good match for each other. They’re both about characters talking, but not communicating. With Pinter, it’s the things that live in the silence between the things that are said, and the questions that go unanswered. With Mamet, it’s the things that end up getting said instead of the things that need to be said. When any of the evening’s characters need to really connect with one another, words fail.
“You haven’t left that out before.”
Since I’d seen the fine production of Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” during the Minnesota Fringe Festival this year, I was curious to revisit the script again in another presentation. Pinter’s plays tend to reward additional viewings. There’s so much going on under the surface that it’s easy to miss on the first go-round. This time, knowing how it would end, I could dig for clues in the words and the acting. Thanks to the direction (and sound design) of Joshua Iley and the performances of Aaron Coker and Tim McVean, it’s all there. The production never tips Pinter’s hand, but if you pick the puzzle apart, the surprise ending really isn’t a surprise at all. Two hit men wait for instructions on their next assignment, but it’s not going to be as straightforward as either of them were expecting.
“It smells like Clorox, but it tastes like the Junior Prom.”
It’s easy to forget that Mamet has a romantic streak. Oh sure, he’s a clear-eyed cynic, too. But “Sexual Perversity In Chicago” isn’t really all that perverse. The language may frequently be scalding, but all these four mixed-up people want is to connect with someone else in a meaningful way. The main stumbling block is they don’t know how to share. When Danny (Justin Hooper) and Deborah (Hannah Steblay) start dating, their close friends Bernard (Michael Kelley) and Joan (Anika Taylor) start feeling threatened. Bernard and Joan have been getting all their intimacy from their friendships, while striking out spectacularly in the romantic department. When their friends start having less time for them, the new boyfriend and girlfriend start looking more like the enemy encroaching on their territory. So some subtle, and not so subtle, sabotage begins to chip away at the young lovers’ newfound happiness. There’s a reason this script has been mined countless times for acting classes over the last 35-plus years. It has some of the funniest, meatiest two person scenes for men and women in a variety of combinations. The actors here dive into the material with zest, and are clearly enjoying the opportunity.
My only quibble with second play is that it couldn’t seem to keep its hand off the light switch. Each individual scene, and there are many, is directed with a sure hand by Sarah Teich. But at the end of almost every scene, the stage would go black. So the production had a hard time gaining any momentum. As an audience, we’re willing to buy into all manner of suspension of disbelief. Michael Hoover’s set and Stacey Wenzel’s costumes serve to create the world of both plays well, so even when it’s only a simple reshuffling of the same unit set pieces into a different configuration, we buy the set-up of a warehouse in modern Britain, or multiple locales in Chicago back in the 1970s. Grant E. Merges’ lighting design is otherwise very supportive of the evening as a whole. I wish the second half of the production had trusted us as much as the first half, and provided transitions that led out of one scene into another, rather than stopping and starting quite so much.
To round out the evening, other members of the 3AM company (Gunther Gulluckson, Taj Ruler, & Alex Boivin) take the stage to do a little long-form improv comedy. One suggestion from the audience (in this case a combination of a tennis court and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory) and they were off and running, pinging back and forth between a variety of scenes and characters that ended up being mighty entertaining. Creativity without a net is hard to do. They pulled it off quite well. It was a nice cap on the entertainment for the night.
On balance, 3AM Productions has pulled together a smart production of two very strong plays. The mix of scripted and unscripted, comedy and drama, keeps the audience on its toes and pays off well in a number of ways. It was a good way to start off my theatergoing for 2010.
“Dumb/Sex” from 3AM Productions runs now through January 23, 2010 at the Old Arizona (2821 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN – oldarizona.com) – Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, with a special Monday, January 11th performance that is pay what you can. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for students and senior, and $14 for groups of 10 or more. For reservations, call 612-339-0207, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit 3amprod.info