By Peter Marks
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; C03
If only the people of the states deemed red and blue could be divided into pairs and required to crack open a bottle of vino. How quickly they'd learn that there's really only one America - the one that's just a big, unhappy family. In Joe Calarco's slender new piece, "Walter Cronkite Is Dead," a guarded Easterner and a hyperdramatic Southerner are forced to share a corner of a crowded airport lounge, where they discover the ties of disappointment that bind us all.
Actually, it's the playwright-director who compels them into confessional close quarters. I'm not so sure "Walter Cronkite Is Dead," receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre, convinces us that Nancy Robinette's self-contained Margaret is the type of person who would willingly stick around to listen to Sherry L. Edelen's shrill Patty, a character evoked here as an escapee from "Mama's Family."
This oil-meets-water comedy has its consolations, especially as they concern the always-watchable Robinette's ability to help us with the belief that Margaret, at a moment of high anxiety, would have the patience for Patty's attention-drawing hoots and sobs and guffaws. Edelen's specialty is for brassy tenacity, a trait she put to fine use as Madame Thenardier in Signature's "Les Miserables." Here, however, the task of making Patty an irritating foil for Margaret drives Edelen to outrageous, drawling caricature and confines the play to the realm of extended sketch.
Calarco, director of Signature's arresting, audience-mirroring "Assassins" a few years back, and creator of off-Broadway's smart "Shakespeare's R+J," takes a less adventurous path on this occasion. The premise has some of the earmarks of an assignment in playwriting class: Two strangers meet in a public place and. . . . The place is Reagan National Airport, on a stormy day when operations have come to a halt and passengers are camped out everywhere. Margaret, awaiting the arrival of a flight carrying her son, is seated at a table with a carafe of white wine and, apparently, the last vacant chair at the airport.
Enter Patty, dragging with her the accouterments of a bull-in-a-china-shop tourist, the noisy sort who prompts other Americans to claim they're Canadian. She's on her way to London to see "The Lion King" because the Brits are better actors than Americans. Her perception leads to one of the evening's funnier jokes, and also suggests that Patty is not quite the stereotypical hick we or Margaret see; later, Patty has a speech denouncing the superior attitude toward Middle America of people in the big cities that's intended to cement the idea that we should not be so quick in this country to jump to demographic conclusions.
The structure of "Walter Cronkite Is Dead"- an allusion to the late, widely respected anchorman and the sense that Americans collectively had more cultural touchstones once upon a time - requires Margaret and Patty to circle each other and eventually find a common landing strip. Where their sensibilities converge in the sterile cafe, conjured with utilitarian aptitude by set designer James Kronzer, is in the trials of motherhood.
That doesn't come as much of a surprise, in a piece that lapses too often into predictability. But maybe in a time as politically fractious as this, the mere idea of two women sitting and absorbing viewpoints they normally wouldn't abide counts as revolutionary.
Walter Cronkite Is Dead written and directed by Joe Calarco. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Matt Rowe. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.