THE DEATH OF BESSIE SMITH by Edward Albee. DON'T TELL LILY by Robert Somerfeld. Directed by Fredric Lee. Sets and Lighting designed by Tom Loftis. With Raymond Green, Neal Flieger. Brian Evaret Chandler, John Vorhees, Nancy Lepp, Warren Brown, Evelyn Woolston and William Goeren.
At the Back Alley Theater, 14th and Kennedy Streets NW. Thursdays through Sundays until February 24. Phone: 797-7874.
The current double bill at the Back Alley Theater hits and misses in both attempts but nonetheless succeeds as an evening of often entertaining (and occasionally enlightening) contemporary drama.
Though some of the energy and exuberance behind the two productions is clearly misdirected, Edward Albee's 1959 account of "The Death of Bessie Smith" and Robert Somerfeld's "Don't Tell Lily" are rendered wholeheartedly by the community-based experimental troupe.
Under the direction of Back Alley veteran Fredric Lee, a young and aspiring cast almost comes to grips with Albee's impressions of what might have happened in and around two Memphis hospitals the day that Bessie Smith died. The one-act play examines the attitudes and circumstances of a fictional emergency-room staff just before the blues singer's death in 1937.
While infusing his players with gusto, director Lee does not get them beyond an independent understanding of character and persona; their fluffed lines aside, each handles the assignment with heart and soul, yet each fals time and again to rely upon or relate to the others. The characterizations ultimately appear shallow and the play seems disjointed.
The staging, unfortunately, creates more trouble. Lee has erred in chosing to ignore many of what Albee himself calls "general ideas" for the set and lighting; what results serves to intensify the apparent lack of unity. And the montage of scenes Lee tacks on to close the play can't quite pull the parts together.
The cast, however, makes the most of Albee's razor-edged dialogue, attacking the roles with an output of energy that is astonishing -- if not entirely appropriate. (Notable in this regard are Nancy Lepp as The Nurse and William Goeren as The Intern.) Despite its other failings, there is a respect for the words and syntax in this production that would probably earn it the playwright's endorsement.
"Don't Tell Lily" is a one -- scene absurdity for a pair of dynamic, agile actors. Raymond Green and Neal Flieger rise to the occasion, though the boyish Flieger isn't quite convincing as White, a dictionary editor with two kids and a five-bedroom house in suburbia. Green portrays Black, an out-of-work cook with an enigmatic fantasy about sexual assignations with white suburban housewives.
Also directed by Fredric Lee, the action takes place in a Harlem subway station, a setting well-designed and perfectly lit by Back Alley's Tom Loftis. Armed with little else but reality and illusion, Black and White meet in a battle of wits over stereotypical racial fears. The conflict is stunning, vulgar and not quite revealing.The play is often reminiscent of Albee's powerful "Zoo Story" and was aptly chosen to round out the program.