Directed skillfully and acted well, "Two Masks," which just opened at the American Century Theater, still makes for an odd evening of theater. It's a duo of peculiarly paired one-act plays--an unwieldy tragedy by a neophyte Eugene O'Neill and a slick period satire by a highly polished Elaine May.
More dubious than this marriage, however, is the overall point to which a respectable amount of talent has been put. Artistic director Jack Marshall writes in his program notes that he wants "to subject audiences to the extremes of the dramatic spectrum . . . and see what results." Sometimes experiments boil and froth wonderfully like a mad-scientist-in-his-lab scene in an old horror movie. Sometimes they blow up in your face. And sometimes they do nothing, which is mostly what happens here.
O'Neill's "Thirst," the top half of the bill, ostensibly is about a sailor (Michael Replogle) and two upper-class passengers (Bruce Alan Rauscher and Liz Demery) who find themselves drifting on a raft on a tropical sea after their ship has sunk. Much has been made of the fact that O'Neill wrote this barely a year after the Titanic went down in 1912, but the play has more to do with his failed suicide attempt of that year at age 24 and his loss of religious faith 10 years earlier.
With no hope of rescue, as one character puts it, "all we can do is die"; the sky, we're told, is "empty," and the most the castaways can do is "to wait and wait for something that never comes." (Where would 20th-century art be without existential angst?) If you suspected an ironic end coming, you'd be right. O'Neill would later dramatize his nihilism more complexly, but at this youthful point he was ham-handed and overwrought.
Carrie Ballenger's stark set, a white platform rising atop blue-draped flooring, merges seamlessly with Marc A. Wright's harsh, isolating lights; together they sharply evoke a merciless world. Demery and Rauscher are affecting in their struggle to maintain a delusion of hope, as Replogle, forced by the script to be the Symbolic Enigma, nicely underplays his few lines.
Flash forward to 1969, when May wrote "Adaptation," which skewers American bourgeois values by showing us life as a game show. The Contestant (Rauscher) is born, lives and dies while on a show called (surprise!) "Adaptation." It's really just an extended, bleak sketch--"This Is Your Life" meets "Saturday Night Live"--and while it's still funny in places, the by-now-old jokes at the expense of the middle class wear thin rather quickly. Rauscher's contestant is an endearingly pathetic Everyman, while Demery and Replogle handle the multiple characters and caricatures they play with ease. Ballenger and Wright come up with another winning combination of set and lights, and Ricki Kushner's sound hits all the appropriate notes.
The plays aren't totally unrelated: Where "Thirst" mourns the void in man's soul, "Adaptation" parodies the one in a nation's. Neither, however, has much contemporary resonance in this production. O'Neill's play suffers from a lack of artistic discipline, May's from simply being dated. And while Marshall has staged the first and DeAnna Duncan the second with sturdy consistency and a touch of wit, neither director has found anything new or compelling in the plays that merits another look at them. The result? A rather academic exercise well done.
Two Masks: Thirst, by Eugene O'Neill, and Adaptation, by Elaine May. Directed respectively by Jack Marshall and DeAnna Duncan. With David Elias and Anne Richardson. Through Aug. 7 at American Century Theater. Call 703-553-8782.
CAPTION: Liz Demery and Bruce Alan Rauscher, above, in "Two Masks" at American Century; and Michael Replogle, below left, Demery and Rauscher.