"Midnight Oil," a two-act play produced recently at the Bowie Art Theatre in White Marsh Park, is one of an emerging genre of drama that draws on occupational experiences -- in this instance, in the advertising business.
The office -- with its unpredictable bosses, personality clashes, zany incidents and parties both memorable and forgettable -- is gaining popularity as a setting for both comedy and serious drama, whether in television sitcoms or films such as "9 to 5." In the case of "Midnight Oil," however, the playwright's familiarity with the advertising world was both a help and a hindrance.
Robert DeVeau of Crofton has spent 25 years in the ad business. He wrote "Midnight Oil," his first play, while commuting to and from his job in downtown Washington.
But does "Midnight Oil," set in the art department of an advertising agency, gain from this intensive insight?
On the plus side, there is authenticity where the play touches on problems such as bankruptcy, personal disaster, alcoholism, divorce and romance, and draws on real-life detail from DeVeau's work days.
"There are bits of people I know in it, a lot of me in it, but I souped up some of the characters for more humor," DeVeau said.
On the negative side, there is the problem of inside humor -- plenty of laughs for a specialized audience of ad agency workers, but not enough excitement for theatergoers accustomed to mad scenes, mayhem and on-stage murders.
The ad-agency argot and uneven dialogue detract from the play. Its strongest lines include, "What do you give someone who has nothing?" and, "No one gets out of life alive." Occasional forced outbursts, which fail to alter the direction of the drama, wedge it squarely between a soap opera and a slow-boiling sitcom.
DeVeau was pleased with this production by the Crofton Players' Guild, despite the limited professionalism of the five actors and actresses who tried to bring his lines to life. "You can't see it on paper," he said. "Before a play comes alive, it has to come out of the ink. You have to let the actors play with it." He's hoping for a more professional treatment next time.
DeVeau, who has appeared in two plays and built the set for another during his five years as a member of the guild, designed the sets for "Midnight Oil" and directed the production "to keep it as close as possible to my original thinking."
His direction was too cautious, however, and this, plus weak performances by two ad agency employes playing themselves, made for ponderous stretches that could prove fatal to the play. Human warmth was projected at times, but rarely sustained.
This was the first time the guild had produced a play written by one of its members.
Having learned much about the art of writing plays from this first experience, DeVeau is now working on a new play, a murder mystery.