Tangelico and A Cube with a View Bring the Avant-Garde to Life

A door slams. A man in a black unitard angrily stalks onto a bare stage, carrying a bar stool. He sets the stool down, then spends the next several minutes moving the stool from place to place and doing the sort of limbering and breathing exercises an actor might do before a monologue or an audition. Soon he's joined on this empty stage by two others, and the trio banter and spar about potato peeling and apple eating, and we're left to wonder where they are and what significance anything they're saying may have.

Sterling Lynch's Tangelico, now playing at Space 55 Theatre, is the kind of one-act once referred to as avant-garde, where the story could be taking place in an alternative universe and where a monologue about a family car trip is fraught with meaning and isn't really about a car trip at all. These sorts of earnest, highly stylized plays have fallen out of favor and are rarely produced anymore. Outside of an acting class or a Fringe festival, they seem dated and a little silly.

So why did I enjoy Tangelico so much? I'm thinking it's because the three actors who brought it to life did so with such sincerity and cleverness, and because Bob Fisher's keen direction has spit-shined a slice of theatrical lunacy to a high glow.

It's tough to sell an hour in which people are arguing about why they keep coming back to a place to sit on stools and yak without ever telling us where they are or why they're there. But Lynch's charming memory play becomes a showcase for Brandon Wiley's sly acting talents; he offers the unreality of his circumstances — a man appears in the same spot, presumably each day, in order to drink a glass of soy milk and to "think," and is confronted by a pair of women he appears to know but doesn't want to be there — in such a forthright manner, I was able to forget I was watching something that might have come off as an acting exercise in lesser hands. Another bonus: Wiley's big meltdown toward the end of the story is expertly built and played without a trace of hamminess.

He's well assisted by his co-stars. With some gentle sarcasm and subtle body language, Willa Darian makes a winsome sprite out of a thinly written character. And Stacey Reed, whom I hope to see again soon in another production, manages to convey real affection and comic dismay, all the while rooted to a stool and peeling potato after potato.

Tangelico is presented as the top half of a double bill of one acts; the other play, A Cube with a View, is intended as an homage of sorts to the Lynch play but is less entertaining by half. Written by local playwright Mare Biddle, this office comedy concerns three people who meet for lunch to honk and blather about their cubicles, and about sex and love and French fries. Biddle has incorporated some of the bits from Tangelico — the glass of soy milk; a rant about cats — into a play that plays like third-rate David Mamet without all the overlapping dialogue; it's not especially well acted and ultimately not a lot of fun to watch.

But seek out Space 55 Theatre, a newish group tucked away off Seventh Street downtown, and you'll be rewarded with a small, thoughtful play that looks like a throwback but plays like a dream.

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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