Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan is a terrible play. Poorly written and stuffed with repetitive dialogue, it stands stock-still, flapping its wings but never taking off. And in its Ensemble Theatre production, the program is -- with one important exception -- inexpertly acted. That exception, Ken Matthews' remarkable performance in the title role, is all the more impressive given the humdrum performances and sullen monologues that frame it.
Egloff's story takes place in the living room and kitchen of Dora Hand's suburban Nebraska home. Dora's numerous affairs and several marriages have all failed, and she's settled for life as the mistress of her milkman, Kevin. When a swan crashes into her living room window, Dora takes the creature into her home and nurses it back to health. The bird (whom Dora has named Bill) recovers and gradually becomes a man who falls in love with Dora.
Kevin objects, naturally, and he and Dora engage in a series of relentless and unfunny (the show is billed as a comedy) exchanges about fidelity and desperation. Instead of talking about the fact that the naked guy on the sofa used to be a swan, the would-be lovebirds squawk about trite domestic dilemmas and eventually take action against the bird trapped in Dora's living room.
There's the problem with Egloff's story: It wants to be a fantasy (it is, after all, about a bird who turns into a man), but its dialogue and secondary situations are hardly fantastic. The story's dreamlike qualities and magical theme are forfeited in favor of nothing more interesting than discussion of Kevin's MasterCard bill and Dora's past romances. These repetitive rants take center stage, while our title character, who is suddenly blighted with opposable digits, looks on. There are plenty of points to be made about loss and infidelity, but Egloff never gets to them. Instead, we're treated to shaggy-dog stories by Dora about the men who've abandoned her (one of them killed himself the day after they wed) and tirades from Kevin about Bill.
Egloff has drawn characters as dreary as the situations they live with. There's nothing endearing about Dora's makeshift attitude about life, nothing inspiring or amusing about her desperate pleas for attention. She's entirely unworthy of the love that Bill wants to lavish on her and so stupid that she chooses another loser over this mystical and interesting young fellow. There's no growth on Dora's part; she's the same desperate drudge at curtain and therefore remains enormously unaffecting and dull.
Egloff's humorless text is matched by limp performances from a pair of former soap opera actors. Although Dora is written as the only character fixed in reality, DeAnna Robbins plays her as deluded and wacky. As a result, her final scene -- a frantic, dramatic tantrum -- seems off-kilter and unconvincing. Mike Prindiville is a consistent actor, which is to say that whether playing a madman or a milquetoast, he is always the same. His glib delivery here is appropriate for crazy Kevin, but it isn't particularly fun to watch.
As the swan, Ken Matthews is amazing. His graceful, balletic movements evoke both the elegance of a big bird and the awkward movements one might expect from a swan who's suddenly become a man. He hops onto countertops, hisses in anger, honks with joy; yet never comes off as a dopey caricature of a dumb animal.
Bill's haltingly spoken love poems -- the only bits of Egloff's writing worth listening to -- are stirring, unexpected moments of pleasure in this longish one-act. It's worth sitting through the rest of the evening's 90 minutes -- filled to overflowing with inane dialogue and listless acting -- to witness Matthews' stirring performance in the title role.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.