One Plays, the Other Doesn't

Four Walls collapses, but Black Flag's worth saluting in PlayWright's Theatre doubleheader

There's no synopsizing Gus Edwards' new play. Four Walls' brief, unformed trio of scenes whizzes by like the trailer for a bad movie--one with no budget or much of a story. And the fact that this wan one-act is playing in repertory with Michael Grady's passionate The Raising of the Black Flag makes it appear all the more dreary.

Everything happens in the last couple minutes of Four Walls, a drama that Edwards wrote several years ago and recently hacked away at until it arrived at its current unexciting state. While PlayWright's Theatre has presented humdrum dramas in the past, its worst work has usually been by novice playwrights. But Edwards is a well-respected writer and educator (he's a tenured professor in ASU's theater department) with an impressive list of published plays and writing credentials.

You wouldn't know it from Four Walls, which comes off more like an impromptu playwriting exercise than the short-short one-act Edwards apparently intended it to be.

I was still trying to locate the play's pulse when it ended with a whimper after an unentertaining 20 minutes. In three speedy scenes, this tepid tale of death and infidelity offers no story progression, and no place from which its characters can climb. We learn what little there is to know about the murky main characters as the curtain is falling--a device that might have worked if we'd been given a chance to connect with any of these stiff, unformed people in the first place.

The tiny cast makes a vain attempt at acting this uninspired material, but there's no time to get rolling before all the actors are lying in a puddle of very unconvincing fake blood. The strongest emotion Edwards evoked in me was curiosity: I wondered what the play looked like before it was destroyed by sloppy editing.

The shabbiness of Edwards' Four Walls is all the more apparent because it's followed by Michael Grady's longer, more polished play. The Raising of the Black Flag is a talky drama about capital punishment that, like Edwards' play, had a staged reading at the Herberger earlier this year.

The story is set in a state prison anteroom, where a black woman and a white man square off over a death-row inmate who's about to go to the chair. She's there to protest the death penalty; he's there to cheer when his daughter's murderer is executed. The huzzah--that her son died in the electric chair for a similar crime--comes early, and Grady fills up the ensuing 40-odd minutes with some pretty heady word play on racism and the conundrum of capital punishment.

What makes The Raising of the Black Flag so consistently appealing is that Grady's characters aren't archetypes; neither of them responds the way we'd expect them to. Etta is warm and thoughtful, even when she's discussing her son's death; Carl has a sense of humor about the bigotry and callousness Etta would like to attribute to him.

The play's potentially drippy passages are salvaged by passionate dialogue and the occasional well-placed punch line--proof that Grady is a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a journalist's sense of storytelling. Let other stage writers rely on flashpots and pyrotechnics; for Grady, theater is still a literary experience, and if his stories lack strong visual elements, they're rich with wonderful word play.

Wanda McHatton's direction of these plays sums up her not-inconsequential talents: Handed strong material, she can build a rousing evening's entertainment; with more meager stuff, she's less likely to deliver. Her take on The Raising of the Black Flag bristles with the expectant energy of its author's convictions, while Four Walls, with nothing to hold it up, crumbles in a heap.

Four Walls and The Raising of the Black Flag continue through Sunday, December 20, at PlayWright's Theatre, 1121 North First Street.

 
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