Acting Up

These days, the best way to get a laugh in the theater is to hum the theme song from Laverne and Shirley. But references to my favorite sitcoms were still not enough to mask my discomfort while I watched talented people wrestle bad material to the ground.

In Mixed Company's Someone's Knocking and Phoenix Theater's Never the Sinner barely overcome shopworn scripts with solid performances and attractive staging. While I didn't mind seeing these nice people struggle with slender through-lines, it was tough watching them do it with material I could practically recite along with them.

Someone's Knocking is the sort of knockabout farce that was considered clever 10 years ago, when playwrights were just beginning to explore the impact of pop culture on contemporary society. Today, with entire television networks devoted to Sixties sitcoms, and every other big-screen blockbuster an homage to our prime-time past, the genre has been bled dry.

Perhaps in apology for optioning Rich Orloff's silly satire about an agoraphobic housewife whose best friend is daytime TV, the folks at IMCO have gone out of their way to stage it well. Kevin Kerrigan, the company's artistic director, does a clever job of finessing the less-than-subtle subject matter, and Michael Brooks' brilliant black-and-white set is straight off a Screen Gems back lot.

Some of our best comic actors have been commissioned to mouth Orloff's droopy dialogue. As the beleaguered lead, Wallace and Ladmo alumnus Cathy Dresbach is the perfect sitcom superwife, pouring coffee and purring cliches with more style than the material requires. Robert L. Harper once again demonstrates an ability to turn every gesture into a laugh; here, he plays a cross between a canine and a television set (don't ask) and spends all of Act I barking out cheesy TV theme songs. And while I was as glad as ever to watch Ginny Harman play another wise-cracking dame, I won't be satisfied until I see her in a lead--or at least a role that makes better use of her considerable acting talents.

Punctuating these performances is an endless stream of television references masquerading as camp humor: a Jerry Springer commercial; a game show where contestants compete for self-esteem; the aforementioned medley of sitcom songs. Not even Kerrigan's human laugh track (he's planted shills in the audience, who laugh long and loud at every punch line) could convince me that this show is funny. I imagine that Nick at Nite fans--or anyone who isn't yet sick of references to The Brady Bunch--will love Someone's Knocking. I can only admit that I enjoyed it in spite of itself.

There's nothing we haven't seen before in Never the Sinner, either. John Logan's monotonous script amounts to two hours of feeble foreplay between Leopold and Loeb, the infamous murderers who have been portrayed in a trio of films--most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rope; most recently the gay art-house flick Swoon.

What one finds in place of conventional dramatic elements is the same old inquiry into this historic 1924 case. Why did the boys kill Loeb's teenaged cousin? Were they in fact so pleased with their crime? Were Leopold and Loeb really lovers? Logan raises these questions but never delves into them; instead, he creates long, windy conversations between the boys or stages shout fests between their lawyer, Clarence Darrow (Richard G. Glover) and prosecuting attorney Robert Crowe (Mark Collver, whose loud, extravagant denouncement of the murder is the play's only memorable speech).

Director Michael Mitchell's relentless pacing of these verbal volleys can't save them; Logan's writing is just too bland. If there's little to work with here, Mitchell at least makes it pleasant to look at. He's created a series of tableaux that recall the grainy newspaper photos of the day and, with the assistance of set designer Evan Alexander, has created a gritty, uncluttered world of shadows and hard lines in which his murderous duo reside.

Why Mitchell allowed Jere Luisi to play twentysomething Nathan Leopold as a whiny old auntie is anyone's guess. Perhaps he was consumed with assisting Joël David Maurice in creating his truly wonderful interpretation of Richard Loeb. Charming without being warm, cunning without resorting to caricature, Maurice wins over the audience even while laughing about the crime he's just committed. As the play descends into yelling and tears, this young actor's mellifluous voice and caddish manner are all that are left to enjoy.

Mitchell's real mistake is in papering the lobby with warnings about the "shocking" murder at the end of the first act. While the scene is expertly mimed by Maurice, there's nothing particularly gruesome about it; the opening night audience seemed more unnerved by Leopold and Loeb's single onstage kiss than by the simulated slaying.

Whatever their reason, about a third of the audience had cleared out by the second-act curtain, leaving the rest of us to admire Mitchell's attempt at rescuing a routine script. Perhaps my fellow theater patrons had headed home to look for a rerun they hadn't already seen.

In Mixed Company's Someone's Knocking continues through Sunday, November 22, at Playwrights Theater, 1121 North First Street; and November 27, 28 and 29 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

Never the Sinner continues through Sunday, November 22, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela