The four one-act plays that constitute Robert Anderson's "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" have a wide range in both subject matter and quality, as can be seen in the Bowie Community Theatre's current production.
The accent is on slightly edgy comedy for three of the episodes. The other one is an awkward mixture of pathos and humor, each canceling out the other.
The first segment was already a bit dated when the play premiered on Broadway in 1967. Titled "The Shock of Recognition," it is a duel of wits between a playwright and a theatrical producer over control of a script. The playwright has called for some brief male nudity, a then-revolutionary idea that the producer believes will cause him to lose both his star and his audience. Written just as Broadway was about to be overrun with naked people onstage, such as in the hits "Oh! Calcutta!" and "Hair," the plot's relevance was somewhat diminished, even though many of the jokes, particularly about male insecurity, hold up today.
"The Shock of Recognition" succeeds here mostly because of the comedic talents of Mike Dunlop as producer Herb Miller, who is unnerved by the very thought of such full disclosure. Dunlop controls the stage from the moment he enters Miller's office, emanating authority. Because Dunlop exudes such power at the outset, his character's later discomfort is made all the more funny, as he scrunches up his face in concentration, trying to picture an image he'd rather not face. Todd Cunningham, meanwhile, turns himself into a virtual sight gag in the role of guileless actor Richard Pawling, whom the sparring writer and producer use as a pawn to make their respective points.
"The Footsteps of Doves" is a clever bit of fluff about a dangerous juncture in a 25-year-old marriage. Harriet and George are in a mattress store. She wants twin beds, he wants to stay with their old double, fearing the physical gulf the new sleeping arrangement would create could have serious repercussions for their relationship. Harriet just wants to get her first good night's sleep in decades. There are plenty of laughs, with dynamic performances from Cathy L. Barth and Craig Miller as the couple, but also a sly twist after George meets a comely young lady in the store, leading to one of the funniest double entendres in memory.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" is often cut from productions of this show, and for good reason. It is a mawkish segment about a father who inexplicably goes to pieces over a relatively minor family matter. This overwrought vignette has a murky rationale that fails as both comedy and drama. Additionally, director Jack Degnan has his weakest cast here, and they are unable to make much of their scene.
Relief soon arrives as the best part of the evening is saved for last, a hilariously funny and deliciously performed segment called "I'm Herbert." It alone is worth the price of admission to see the razor-sharp Barry Knower and Jerri Shelton have their way with Anderson's clever wordplay. This is essentially a one-joke concept that probably would not be written today: Herbert and Muriel are an aged couple with failing memories. Holding forth from their rocking chairs, they bicker and banter in a sort of "Who's on First?" conversation, underscored with warmth, which goes in circles to leave you limp with laughter.
This, however, is not the troupe's best-looking show. Degnan's sets use the Bowie Playhouse's ample overhead fly space to effectively accommodate scene changes, but Jill York's bland scenic design drains considerable warmth from the first and third segments.
"You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" concludes this weekend at the Bowie Playhouse at Whitemarsh Park, Route 3 South. Performances on Friday and Saturday are at 8 p.m. For tickets or information, call 301-805-0219.