Theater review of Madcap Players' 'Constant State of Panic'

Dave (Paul McLane) and Sonia (Carleen R. Troy) try to reconnect in the Madcap Players' "Constant State of Panic" at the H Street Playhouse.
Dave (Paul McLane) and Sonia (Carleen R. Troy) try to reconnect in the Madcap Players' "Constant State of Panic" at the H Street Playhouse. (Isaac Liu)
By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, January 21, 2010

The jittery comedy "Constant State of Panic" takes place on a single sitcom-style set, and the borders of the generic living room and kitchen are amusingly porous. The perky TV lady who delivers ominous news on the wide, wall-mounted screen actually pops into the room, and a pesky Homeland Security officer slips in through the unlikeliest of cracks.

That's not a bad way to visualize the theme of fearing fear itself, but the Madcap Players' production unfortunately also resorts to sitcom-style acting that labors to tell a joke.

The story revolves around Dave, a working drone who goes 'round the bend thanks to the psychological pressure of our threat-level culture. He's paranoid -- note the three deadbolts on the front door and the baseball bat he wields like a light saber -- but Patrick Gabridge's play doesn't make it easy to tell how much of the problem is him and how much it's us.

The idea seems to be that, culturally, we've made our own bed. But it's hard to see ourselves in Dave because Paul McLane plays him as jumpier than Scooby-Doo. It's a hyperventilating performance, with McLane whirling at each perceived threat while director Gary Raymond Fry Jr. keeps a deliberate pace. It's like rush hour: You think it's time for speed, but you just get lurches.

Then again, the play gives mixed signals. Gabridge goes in for a certain level of absurdity, snapping the bounds of realism to make his point, and at times the antics are genuinely funny. Tori Miller does a bit of zesty work as the TV anchor who not only argues with Dave but delivers some cheap wrestling shots to drive her ideas home. A silent "I'm watching you" gesture from a Chinese food deliveryman to McLane's shocked Dave even catches the audience off guard and gets a big laugh, confirming the comic potential in Gabridge's setup.

But the targets are awfully fat. What, TV news sensationalizes everything? Homeland Security tramples civil liberties? These ideas come across as smug broadsides; the writing isn't nimble or original enough to inspire much real comedy or thought.

Yet it probably should be played with more subtlety. Maybe Dave isn't a whack job; maybe, as Gabridge fashions a few twists and complications, we ought to relate a little more seriously than we do.

But Fry and McLane aren't attuned to nuance, so Dave's just an edgy white nebbish, little placated by his levelheaded black wife, Sonia (Carleen R. Troy, in a thankless role). Like Dave, you wind up scouring the single-door set, half-expecting the next surprise as you look for the hidden spots where this trim little domestic fortress will be breached.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Constant State of Panic

by Patrick Gabridge. Directed by Gary Raymond Fry Jr. Set, Beth Baldwin and Jon Boags; costumes, Elizabeth Reeves; lights, Brian Allard; sound design, Matthew Bruce. With Aidan Hughes. About two hours. Through Jan. 31 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE.

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