The perpetual quest for new plays, a worthy and necessary endeavor, has unfortunately turned up nothing of great necessity or worth at the Source Theatre, where a double bill of original one-acts opened Sunday night.
The first, Karen Green's "These Dead Ladies Are My Friends," is the stronger of the two offerings -- not because it's a better constructed play, but simply because it is better acted. Three of the actresses portray Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, all women writers who committed suicide. The fourth is a stand-in for the playwright herself, who, as the title indicates, feels a deep kinship with her celebrated predecessors.
The play is an anthology of observations from the three famous writers on women and art, chosen because they apparently bear particular relevancy to Green's own life, which we also get in dribs and drabs. All four characters talk directly to the audience, never to one another. Whatever communicating is going on among them is going on spiritually.
We learn that, like Sylvia Plath, the author tried to distinguish herself as a young woman by winning academic honors and literary prizes. "Anne Sexton and I had that in common: difficult mothers and stable husbands," she admits later. Juggling her roles of mother, psychologist, would-be actress and writer, she fully appreciates Virginia Woolf's observation that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
Some of this is not without a kind of unintentional hubris. But the famous writers' thoughts are often literate and provocative, and the cast (Mary K. Wulf, Gillian Doyle, Nancy Magathan and Lynn Schrichte) keeps the tone crisp. Still, there's no getting around the fact that "These Dead Ladies Are My Friends" is a writer's notebook, plopped down on a stage. Aarticulate as it may be, it rightfully belongs on a shelf.
A. M. Homes' "The Call-In Hour" imagines what might happen if a sensitive young man not unlike Holden Caulfield, who served as the inspiration for a book not unlike "Catcher in the Rye," were to turn up on a radio talk show to set the record straight. Well, not too much, as it turns out, although Homes' premise is certainly promising enough. The winner of Source's second annual play-writing contest, the play was initially titled "The Caulfield Call-In Hour," until J.D. Salinger's agent indicated another title might be advisable.
Now the young man is called Harmon Christopher and the work that immortalized him is "Life in the Outfield" by Solomon Davies. No matter: Holden Caulfield by any other name would act so introspectively. "The Call-In Hour" banks heavily on our prior knowledge and affections to generate a modicum of interest. For most of the play, Harmon fields foolish questions from radio listeners, until Solomon calls him up. From their halting on-air conversation, we gather that the book has somehow deeply injured the two of them.
Maybe a better production would make the play seem less pointless. But Bart Whiteman's staging is to good direction what a mumble is to good speech. And the cast, headed by Teman Treadway as the grown-up Caulfield figure, is pretty much without charm.
THESE DEAD LADIES ARE MY FRIENDS. By Karen Green. Directed by Wendy MacLeod. With Mary K. Wulf, Gillian Doyle, Nancy Magathan, Lynn Schrichte.
THE CALL-IN HOUR. By A. M. Homes. Directied by Bart Whiteman. With Teman Treadway, Geoffrey L. Grob, Louis Dickey, Gayle Wilson. At the Source Theatre through Feb. 12.