A July 22 Style review of the Potomac Theatre Project's "Press Conference" and "One for the Road" misidentified the director. The productions were directed by Richard Romagnoli. (Published 7/29/2005)
Predictable salvos from Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are being upstaged at this summer's Potomac Theatre Project by a premiere featuring a walking, talking teddy bear.
Porgy, the bear, serves as the benevolent narrator in Snoo Wilson's erratic but engaging "Lovesong of the Electric Bear." Porgy is imbued with deep loyalty and childish whimsy by actress Tara Giordano in a fluffy suit and an adorable pair of fuzzy ears. The bear turns out to be a clever device for probing the mind of mathematician, code breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing, who led a breathtakingly brilliant and (at least in this rendering) rather lonely life.
"Lovesong" zings energetically around the Olney Theatre Center's black-box space. The scenes are brief and pointed, and director Cheryl Faraone seizes on the staccato rhythms of Wilson's structure to create a tense, questing atmosphere. Aubrey Deeker has a nice outsider quality as Turing, quirky and rather melancholy. Your heart goes out to this figure as he gets bullied at school, loses an inspiring friend, taps into his own genius, becomes a crackerjack cryptologist for the English during the Second World War and begins to understand the cognitive capabilities of inanimate objects -- that is, the idea of computers.
But the play begins to seem like an erratic race toward the grim end of Turing's life, the all-too-real suicide that the fanciful Porgy interrupted when the play began. Turing's homosexuality is pretty much ignored until the eleventh hour, at which point it ruins him: He's arrested for "gross indecency" and forced to undergo hormone therapy to "cure" him.
That is awful treatment for anyone, of course, and certainly for this bona fide British hero and scientific visionary. Wilson's on fertile ground throughout the play as he explores the cruelty and ignorance Turing endured. But the arc of the story is a bit wobbly, and near the end scenes grow wooden, with characters delivering expositions with about as much subtlety as town criers.
The ending, though, is surprising and beautiful -- romantic, even, thanks to that adoring inanimate bear.
Less interesting by far is a pair of smug warhorses, Albee's "The American Dream" and Pinter's "One for the Road," one-acts sharing a bill with Pinter's infinitesimal "Press Conference" -- a four-minute sketch that hardly deserves its own title. ("Lovesong" and the Albee-Pinter bill are in rep with "Somewhere in the Pacific," reviewed in Wednesday's Post.) "The American Dream" is an angry cartoon satirizing what Albee saw as the fatuous family values of 1961 America. "I'm pretty sure it serves us right," wrote critic Walter Kerr when the play first appeared. By reviving it now, the Potomac implicitly suggests that snippy ridicule and outrageous caricature are still what we deserve.
It's a reasonable thesis, but this early Albee one-act is too hysterical to make the case. "Dream," which draws from Albee's famously unhappy childhood, sets up as a bald prototype the kind of dysfunction that has been much better chronicled since, not least by Albee himself. Set in an upper-middle-class living room with empty picture frames on the wall, Mommy and Daddy (as the married couple refer to each other) natter about the difficulty of getting "satisfaction" from American life. Among other things, the child they adopted, um, didn't work out.
Luckily, a replacement is in the works, a model young man known as (drum roll, please) the American Dream. He's gorgeous and emotionally dead. Take that, America.
It's hard to fault director Richard Romagnoli's staging. Valerie Leonard and Nigel Reed are appropriately childish and narrow-minded as Mommy and Daddy, with Leonard archly tapping into Mommy's wanton streak. (Daddy's basically obtuse, so Reed mainly stares and blinks.) Vivienne Shub brings a bit of flair as Grandma, who speaks directly to the audience about how shabbily the old are treated, but the dark fun of the exercise never kicks in. Without at least occasional subversive laughter, this early play turns unbearably shrill, and it sinks.
Albee's best work was still ahead of him when he came up with "Dream"; Pinter's was behind him when he wrote "One for the Road" in the 1980s. The menace and complexity that marked the dramas that made his name are gone, replaced by an embarrassingly cliched portrait of evil in a three-piece suit. While sipping a cocktail, this monster toys with the transparently innocent victim he's had brutally tortured. Again, nothing wrong with Chris Hayes's production: Richard Pilcher is refined yet decadent as the embodiment of First World power, and Reed (the chief victim) is again on hand to stare and blink, though in a more pathetic mode.
But by writing in such generic terms, Pinter paints himself into James Bond territory, with good and evil inflated to absurd proportions (and made boring, to boot). The recently written "Press Conference" is the same. So what if Pinter -- and, in the performance, Pilcher -- accurately parrots the cadences and doublespeak common to irresponsible political figures? The rage registers, but the creative spark is sorely missed.
The American Dream, by Edward Albee. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Press Conference and One for the Road, by Harold Pinter. Directed by Chris Hayes. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Love Song of the Electric Bear, by Snoo Wilson. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Production designer, Alexander Cooper; costumes, Brandon R. McWilliams; sound design, Jarett Pisani. Through Aug. 7 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.