The Sanctuary Theatre, now in its second season, has the laudatory goal of using theater for social commentary. Its current double bill of one-acts, "Bag Lady" and "The Orgy," tries to focus attention on the homeless, a timely subject certainly full of dramatic potential.
Good intentions, unfortunately, do not necessarily make good theater. "Bag Lady," by Jean-Claude van Itallie, is a monologue, the mad ramblings of a concentration camp survivor who now lives on the streets of New York, her home two paper sacks full of mementos. Any impact the play might have is dissipated in Elizabeth Bruce's overwrought, ill-conceived performance. The part calls for an actress of enormous skill and experience and it is unfair -- to the author, the audience and the actress -- to saddle her with a job for which she is clearly unready.
"The Orgy" is a surreal fantasy involving another deranged woman, this one dressed in tattered evening clothes and a tiara. The sadistic mother of a mute son, she lives for the one day a month when she invites several beggars over for an "orgy." This quasi-sexual, quasi-religious ritual involves the beggars donning costumes representing the woman's old lovers and acting out a scene in which she met a prince while riding on a train in Argentina. The beggars are openly interested in getting some food and money, and eventually do her in to get it. And none too soon.
Terry Lang plays the old lady as a shrieking loony, hysterically fluttering around with her hands constantly in motion, a southern accent appearing and disappearing like the filthy veil she sometimes puts on her head. The metaphorical ironies of this strange play are pretty much submerged in the frenzy of the staging. By contrast, Lory Leshin as the mute son has a welcome quietness, a performance of gentle artistry that stands out like a crystal in a pigsty.
The theater is located in a bare hall in the Calvary United Methodist Church in Adams-Morgan and seems to make an effort to pull in an audience that might not otherwise go to the theater. The night I was there much of the audience was a group of low-income senior citizens, who, judging from their comments during the intermission, found the profanity of "Bag Lady" offensive and were put off by its bleakness.
Bag Lady, by Jean-Claude van Itallie, and The Orgy, by Enrique Buenaventura. Directed by Michael Oliver, set by Tim Goecke, lighting by Harold Guard, costumes by Suzanne Knapik and Karen Anderson. With Elizabeth Bruce, Terry Lang, Lory Leshin, S. Robert Morgan, William Higgs, Nick Fillah, Cecilia Cook. At the Sanctuary Theatre through April 19.