Hold tight during Act One of Alternative Theatre's A Night in Vegas -- or plan to arrive at intermission and miss it altogether. Either way, you'll want to see "Helen and Jack," the Act Two opener featuring Teresa Ybarra's delightful performance as the anxious mother of a man who's about to wed a fellow nearly twice his age. If, like me, you've slogged through the untidy muddle that is the first half of Joe Marshall's series of playlets, Ybarra's hilarious monologue will be a worthy reward. Either way, her turn is worth the price of admission to this also-ran production.
Still, it's an effort getting there. The first of these five stories, "Dream Vacation," is especially unpleasant, full of flabby acting and reprehensible characters, one of whom dreams about being attacked by a hooker, his dead trick, and a degenerate hotel staff. The second vignette, "Rick and Andrew," is a snooze, full of "meaningful dialogue" about loneliness and the value of honesty. "The Big Flame" is less dreary, due in part to its unusual staging: In scenes where Tom and his deaf lover, Mark, swap dialogue, a third actor stands just offstage, interpreting what Mark is signing. The story, about a deaf man and a blind guy who despise each other, promises more than it delivers. It's fun at first to watch handicapped people taunting each other, but by the time one of them caught a hotel room on fire, I'd lost interest.
Act Two revived me. In counterpoint to Skip Schrader-Bouldin's uptight Jack (whose fine performance here betters his turn as the blind guy in the previous bit), Ybarra displays true comic genius as a well-meaning mom whose son is marrying a man later that day. Her monologue, spoken mostly into a telephone receiver, accelerates into an aria of nervous laughter and warm twitterings, then recoils into a tearful fit of anger and fear. It's a performance that's as moving as it is hilarious.
A Night in Vegas
Space Theatre, 4700 North Central Avenue
Continues through May 29. Call 602-279-1409.
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Ybarra, despite a limited acting background, waltzes off with the show in this single appearance, and proves what I've always suspected about Marshall's writing: that it's better than it appears on the stage, in good part because his plays are almost always read by undertalented amateurs. I like a lot of Marshall's pointed dialogue (like this assessment of men in San Diego: "If it gets hotter than 70 degrees there, they'd all melt together into one arrogant asshole!") and fortunately there's enough of his trademark wisecracking to offset the abundance of exposition he uses to tell these five stories.
The rest of the cast works hard, and winds up creating engaging characters about half the time. Gary Nolan is a snooze as a bisexual mourning his girlfriend in "Rick and Andrew," but he's a scream as the mincing ho in "Twenty Something," the sort-of story (imagine waking up in a roomful of the scariest homosexuals on the planet) that winds up Act Two. Nolan works overtime to make this otherwise half-baked bit about a boy and a bellhop into a frantic showcase for every gay stereotype you've ever blushed about.
Marshall's set is a faultless re-creation of a scruffy Sin City hotel room, a tawdry cave lined with ugly (and expertly hand-painted) wallpaper, grown over with dusty silk plants and tacky gold-framed prints above the beds. Each of the stories takes place is this room, and if they're not equally entertaining, they're very much worth sitting through to get to Teresa Ybarra's dazzling tour de force.