To open its 1985 season, the beleaguered Rep Inc. has turned to two long one-act plays -- Leonard Melfi's "Birdbath" and John Jakes' "Stranger With Roses" -- which it has grouped under the collective title "Modern Time Blues."
Since "Birdbath" is a fairly representative example of the hyperventilating dramaturgy that prospered off-Broadway in the mid-1960s, and "Stranger With Roses" is a piece of sci-fi hokum set in the year 2003, you may well question the Rep's description of the double bill as "a perceptive view of the blues we face today."
More to the point, this shoddily produced and erratically acted evening seems to have been rustled up simply to keep the Rep in the public eye. Without a permanent home, without a cohesive company and without a regular performing schedule, the Rep has become one of the most elusive of the city's smaller theater groups. For "Modern Time Blues," which runs through Jan. 26, it has borrowed the Gala Theatre in the Lansburgh Cultural Center. If the arrangement is, at best, a holding tactic, the production registers as a desperation measure.
"Birdbath" explores the relationship between a down-and-out poet (L.M. Dyson) and a 26-year-old waitress, symbolically named Velma Sparrow (Billie Taylor), who both work in a greasy New York restaurant. Dominated by her off-stage mother, Velma is a jabbering knot of repressions, the kind of character Tennessee Williams might have dreamed up on speed. Although she has never been alone with a man before, she allows herself to be lured into the poet's apartment on the eve of St. Valentine's Day, knocks back a few drinks and then reveals the full murderous depths of her despair.
Dyson is credible enough as the poet, but Taylor's twitchy performance is that of a reckless novice; she so belabors the obvious that you will find "Birdbath" painful going in very short order.
Marginally better acted, "Stranger With Roses" takes place after nuclear war has wiped out present-day civilization (and all living flowers). In its place is a high-tech society (with fake flowers), ruled by electronic gadgetry and staffed by androids. The mysterious stranger who appears at the residence of Sari and David Childs, asking to rent a room, is clearly from another time. How did he get here and what does he want? Could the real roses in his suitcase be a clue?
Even if you've had only minimal experience with sci-fi movies on late-night television, which "Stranger With Roses" resembles, Jakes' plot will not catch you by surprise. Despite the nods it makes to the future, the writing is old fashioned, the scenery primitive and the lighting inept -- all of which makes it hard to believe we're in the year 1985, let alone 2003.
As Sari Childs, the distraught 21st-century wife who can't get anyone to share her suspicions about the mysterious stranger (she's just had a nervous breakdown, you see, and her husband thinks she's fantasizing all over again), Jewell Robinson gives a high-camp performance worthy of a 1940s movie queen. I'm not sure the interpretation is entirely intentional, but it's far and away the most entertaining aspect of "Modern Time Blues."
MODERN TIME BLUES. "Birdbath" by Leonard Melfi, "Stranger With Roses" by John Jakes. Directed by Jaye Stewart. With L.M. Dyson, Billie Taylor, Valdred Brown, Jewell Robinson, Mark Scharf, Matthew Walker, Jared Garelick. At the Gala Theatre through Jan. 26.