Shadow Plays

Very little is more heartbreaking than the loss of a writer who showed every sign of growing into a major talent. Such was the case with John C. Russell, a New York playwright (whose Stupid Kids was produced by Smart Mouth last year at Theatre Rhinoceros Studio). Russell died in 1994 at age 29, just two years after his election to the New Dramatists Guild. Featured in “Lives Well Lived” (New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1), he is described as a “harshly poetic commentator on the urban homosexual world” who “was just finding his voice.”

Smart Mouth is back with more Russell: In the Dark, subtitled “Tiny Gothics” (which I saw in preview), consists of three one-acts that crackle with wit and exhibit a deliciously wicked and irreverent sensibility. It makes me eager to see more of Russell's existing work (he left more than 10 full-length pieces) even though In the Dark itself, with its spare, comically poetic language, is more tease than play and promises much more than it ultimately delivers. After tantalizing us with language, atmosphere, and good performances by the cast of four, it stumbles like a shaggy-dog story without a punch line.

Smart Mouth director Steven Cosson, along with set designer Joan Howard, lighting designer Jennifer Bachofner, and costumer Jessica Miller, has created a wonderfully grim and eerie Victorian world, complete with candelabrum, wrought-iron gates, cobwebs, and silences. The actors' deliciously tongue-in-cheek performances are finely tuned to one another and resonate with the setting and language. If only they had a full-fledged play to invest with all that talent and energy.

In the first offering, Breath, an orphan (Erin Merritt) is pitted against her evil guardian (Molly Goode), and escapes with the help of a dreamed entity (David Bicha) and a servant (Sean Childress). In Her Name, Alice (Merritt), Ben (Steven Cosson), and Caleb (Bicha) mourn the death of Amanda (Goode), and set about trying to turn Alice into her deceased sister. In The Green Box, a couple (Goode and Cosson) engages in psychological warfare over ownership of said box, whose contents is unknown, even to them.

These plays are constructions of comic/melodramatic moments. Everything is loaded with symbolism and meaning. It's all about language, pauses, ominous looks that pass between the characters, and outrageous sight gags. At the outset, this is done to hilarious effect, as when in Breath governess Goode, looking like Joan Crawford in a white wig, puts out the nursery candle with a snuffer made of a doll's head. Later, in Her Name and The Green Box, this carefully cultivated Gothic atmosphere runs out of gas. It's all setup and no payoff. We're primed to expect the unexpected, but the “symbols” — such as the green box — never transcend their obvious meaning, so what seemed promised at the start never materializes.

This is a marvelous company of actors. Under Cosson's direction, they are well-paced, carefully choreographed, and well-suited to the material, especially Molly Goode and her ever-expressive face. David Bicha, playing several sexually ambiguous characters, is delightfully spooky and unsettling. Sean Childress makes a hilariously cadaverous butler, and director Cosson suffers handsomely as a bereft father and an amorous gentleman.

Broadway Babies is quite a bit more than a vanity production, although there are times in this two-act evening that make you think otherwise. Three show-biz “veterans” (that's how the press kit refers to them) — Barbara Carlton, Marsha Mercant, and Jane Wasser — take the audience on a stroll down their various memory lanes. Each has had a reasonably long (although not particularly noteworthy) career, so the strolling can get pretty tiring after a while. There's only so much “Do you remember your first audition?” and “I was just thinking what an incredible influence music has had on my life” you can listen to before you start wanting to make snide retorts. Let's face it, other than the interested parties in the opening-night audience who seemed to hang on every syllable, not many of us really want to know each and every Significant Moment in these gals' lives.

But hang on. These women can sing. And when they sing together, they not only remind you of just how great a well-balanced trio of voices can be, they direct your attention to how many really terrific trio numbers have been written for Broadway. They also sound a lot like the Andrews Sisters. Which is to say their timing and blend is just about perfect.

Bedecked in various supper club-type gowns (costumes are by Laura Hazlett and Jeffrey Struckman), they seem to be out to do it up, once and for all. I got the feeling they decided to pour everything they ever wanted to do into this show, in case no one asked them to do another. Conceived and directed by Melinda Moreno-Miller with splendid musical direction and accompaniment by Gerald Sternbach, the show starts with a group arrangement of the song of title and segues into “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy. (Barbara Carlton must have practiced that trumpet very diligently indeed to make such an impressive Miss Mazeppa.)

The segment on nightmare auditions that follows illustrates both the strength and the weakness of Broadway Babies. As Jane Wasser prepares to sing a complicated lyric (“I Think I May Want to Remember Today” from Starting Here, Starting Now), she wonders out loud what the accompanist is playing and is both wry and self-deprecating. The show, however, quickly settles into the relentlessly perky tone it struggles to maintain for the remainder of the evening. It could have done with a bit more of that tartness and a lot less of here-comes-the-most-thrilling-moment-of-my-life.

I enjoyed Mercant's stage persona, which combines genuine enthusiasm with a dash of hard-earned experience, but Edie Gorme she's not: The decision to have her belt out the dramatic climax of a couple of these songs — “At the Ballet” from Chorus Line and “If He Walked Into My Life” from Golden Rainbow — is not the most judicious. Neither could I tell in Carlton's rendition of “People” (Funny Girl) whether or not she was trying to poke fun at those unabashedly hokey lyrics.

Overall, I have to say that their unflagging (and unflinching) smiles began to wear a bit thin. These are actor/singers who have not, to date (I know, it's never too late), attained their goal of Broadway stardom. And as the evening toiled on, strewn with lines like, “You know what I love about show business?” I started to wonder, aren't they just a little bitter? Not even a teensy bit? The decision to omit any suggestion of disappointment makes Broadway Babies a much more generic revue than it needs to be.

In the Dark runs through July 19 at 450 Geary Studio Theater in S.F.; call 673-1172. Broadway Babies runs through Aug. 20 at the Plush Room Cabaret in S.F.; call 885-2800.

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