Short-Attention-Span Theatre

One-act plays aren't produced often, and that's ironic given that the half-hour television sitcom has become America's most popular dramatic form. That may be why the latest Black Theatre Troupe offering is so refreshing. Its current evening of oneacts provides comic and emotional extremes that would give Friends and Martin a run for their ratings.

The evening revolves around male-female relationships in Martha J. Thomas' Whatever Gets You Through, and Ten Minute Play Series, three one-acts by Gus Edwards, the widely celebrated director/playwright who is now an associate professor at Arizona State University. Cast members Marcia Baymon, Precious J. Morris and Elaine Bardwell appear in various female roles, with Kenneth Grimes playing all the male characters.

Whatever Gets You Through digs into the love lives of three female friends, each with different hopes and concerns about her lover. Perhaps not surprisingly, the play shares a flaw with most TV sitcoms: Interesting ideas are introduced but are not pursued. The plot follows the seemingly happily married Helen, played by Baymon, as she is bombarded by hints of her husband's infidelity. Seeking the counsel of a friend, Selma (Morris), and a neighborhood floozy, Doris (Bardwell), Helen discovers diverse points of view on love and lust. Shaken and confused, Helen struggles to deny her mate's philandering, all the time seeking assurances that the picture she sees through her blind eye is accurate. Doris preaches the perceived virtues of adultery, and Selma pines for love not pursued. And that, alas, speaks for the audience as well. The notions raised about relationships are compelling, but, frustratingly, are left unexplored. It's as though the playwright takes the wishy-washy attitude of Helen, who, learning that her husband may have gotten another woman pregnant, matter-of-factly deadpans, "It's always something."

Gus Edwards' ten-minute plays, by contrast, are crisp, funny and insightful. In the first, Love and Hate, Sam, played by Grimes, shows his love for Audrey (Baymon) by telling her how much he hates her. Audrey reciprocates while Sam spouts fantastic scenarios about Audrey's demise and his involvement with other women. Sam underscores the play's theme, telling Audrey, "I love you, okay? I wish I didn't, but I do."

Friendship, a Love, American Style-type sketch, pits a man's attraction to an ex-girlfriend against his commitment to his fiancee. The results are predictably human, as hormones win over decency, and obvious indiscretions are comically rationalized away.

The evening ends with the weakest of Edwards' pieces, The Guitar, a confusing dialogue between a recently widowed woman and a friend of her husband. The unclear message and disturbing ending make it a sobering closing for this up-and-down evening of theatre.

Director Jean Thomsen, fresh from directing In Mixed Company's brilliant Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, fluctuates in effectiveness in relation to the quality of the script. For Whatever, Thomsen's actors are too often left mugging at the audience, possibly rescuing the moment from a bland script, but breaking the realism of the stage moment. The Edwards pieces fare much better, as each scene is confined to a smaller playing area and the pacing is comically superb. Scenic artist Jason Snodgrass and set dresser Morris create an inviting contemporary atmosphere in three distinct stagings.

The acting, too, seems ordered by the material, with Edwards usually providing the best opportunities. Baymon gives a bumpy performance as the searching Helen, but is smooth and biting as the fighting lover in Love and Hate. Morris sounds like a radio newscaster as Selma, overemphasizing key ideas and losing the human touch the role demands. However, as Jane in Friendship, she is a raw nerve of emotion, casting herself out on the sea of love and hoping for a bite.

As Doris, the bombastic friend in Whatever, Bardwell is marvelous. Her sharp delivery drives most ofthe ailing Thomas piece. But she goes out in a lackluster, plodding portrayal of the widow in TheGuitar.

Providing the most consistency of the night is Kenneth Grimes, who in Edwards' material produces with ease three distinct characterizations: the fast-talking pitchman, the quiet fiance and the stalwart friend.

Though the presentation cruises between highs and lows, in the end it captures the attention, and noteven once is one tempted to surf to another channel.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Whatever Gets You Through and Ten Minute Play Series continues through Sunday, March 3, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.

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Gerald Thomson