It is now approximately 10 years since Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner gave us The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and while it has had its share of imitators, I was struck last week by two plays opening just one day apart that literally owe it their lives: Constance Congdon's multicharacter sitcom/drama Dog Opera at the Magic; and James Lecesne's tour de force Word of Mouth, an all-too-brief visitor at the Solo Mio Festival (it ended Sunday).
Like the characters in Search, both recent arrivals involve a disparate group of people who struggle for meaning and connection and who are, as Lecesne's narrator, Frankie, puts it, “crazy for a miracle to happen in their own lives.” I mention Search not merely because it sprang to mind so immediately as I watched these plays, but because it provides a resonance that enhances otherwise derivative works — whether they are, like Lecesne's, clearly homages, or whether like Congdon's they use a work as a starting point to echo certain yearnings that the original has so perfectly expressed.
Dog Opera (nimbly directed by David Dower) wants to pretend it's utterly unique, wants to touch your heart, and also wants you to think of it as clever. Jeff Rowlings' spare set illustrates the play's split personality: Overhanging the stage is a comically (or is it cynically?) decorative bone (it's a dog's world; get it?), but dominating the backdrop is an enormous moonlike disc that is purely romantic.
Lest we find the Neil Simon-ish dialogue distractingly stagy, playwright Congdon is quick to emphasize the artificial nature of theater as medium: A neutrally clad chorus of five marches out to announce the play's title and author, as though at a reading. They then introduce us to the cast of forthcoming characters by holding up identifying props or costumes (the latter created by Karen Lim).
Meanwhile the show's two principals, Peter (Brian Thorstenson) and Madeline (Stephanie Hunt), are languishing on lounge chairs while cruising the beach. Each sighs desperately for a boyfriend while trading quips designed to let us know what close pals they are. Their repartee sounds as familiar as a sitcom and seems about as sincere. It also informs us that they are stand-ins for generic types: Peter is the witty gay man who can't keep a lover, but who laughs in the face of adversity. (Years ago he was modeled on Noel Coward: brittle, brainy, sophisticated, desperately lonely, and most likely alcoholic. Today he's brittle, brainy, sophisticated, lonely, and most likely HIV-positive.) Madeline is the best girlfriend: a woman with the proverbial great personality who lacks sex appeal and overeats Oreo cookies in defiance of a meditation tape (“Breathing doubt out, breathing hope in”). Except for using self-hypnosis instead of alcohol, she hasn't changed much.
Other players in the Dog Opera — I assume the title is a riff on soap opera — include an underage hustler androgynously named Jackie (Carlo D'Amore), who steals from clients as a way to even the score for looking at him too deeply and stealing part of his soul; an occasional lover of Madeline's (Timothy Flanagan), who's not too bright but who at least wants to go to bed with her; Madeline's tippling mother, Bernice (Pat Parker), who — what else — wants to know why her daughter is without a man; Peter's father, Charlie (Joe Weatherby), who secretly yearns for Madeline; and several others, such as Stavros (Andrew Benator), a Greek hustler Peter meets on vacation.
There is the halfhearted pretense of plot in Dog Opera, which unfolds in sequences of Peter and Madeline drifting into and out of various romances. The central relationship, we are given to understand over and over, is their friendship; but the play's central focus is the play itself.
In line with the opening setup, everything is designed to remind us that this is theater, not real life. Madeline, an elementary school librarian, uses puppets to introduce inner city children to Mother Goose; later, as an aside, she puts on a puppet show about her life. The chorus glides in and out of various supporting roles, all the while giving the audience broad, metaphorical winks. Also, as if to emphasize the show's larger-than-life reach, there are fantastical elements: televisions and radios that insist on playing “Shrimp Boats,” a pop tune from the '50s; keepsake jewelry that disappears and resurfaces; and, in the end, salvation for Jackie in the form of an angel.
The actors are bright and amusing but fail to affect us deeply because Congdon has not taken any risks with the characters they portray. Both Hunt and Thorstenson are engaging and affable, but neither is as memorable as, say, Benator's almost entirely incidental Stavros. D'Amore is so intent on moving us, he comes across as a cliche of the vulnerable runaway. Even the marvelous Pat Parker, who portrays both Maddy's manipulative alcoholic mother and Maddy's would-be lesbian lover, is neutralized by a play that refuses to take an authentic dramatic leap.
The ending, in which the sky and stage are transformed into an enormous field of stars, brings us back to the ending of Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, but unlike that masterpiece, Dog Opera fails to create a larger sense of human connectedness strong enough to serve as the dramatic force.
Word of Mouth, James Lecesne's virtual homage to Search, uses an almost identical dramatic conceit — a human satellite dish who “picks up” signals from otherwise disconnected souls and broadcasts them to interested parties onstage as well as to the au-dience. Unlike Search's Trudy, who proudly proclaims her madness, Frankie is not crazy. The people he homes in on are a varied lot, ranging from an elderly widow who recalls her life in colonial Africa to a gay teen-ager who wishes he were Diana Ross. (The latter formed the basis for Trevor, an Oscar-winning short film.)
While these are poignant and entertaining portraits, they seem of a piece with, say, Constance Congdon's. (Or Jane Wagner's.) Writing this, I had trouble remembering how Word of Mouth's Trevor differed from Jackie, Dog Opera's adolescent gay. On the surface they do not appear alike: Trevor is a middle-class boy troubled by his emerging sexual identity. Jackie is jaded before his time, homeless and friendless. But underneath they are both desperate and fragile in the same troubling way and require (in Jackie's case) the supernatural assistance of a reassuring benevolence.
What is notable about Word of Mouth is Lecesne the performer rather than Lecesne the writer. He himself seems the human satellite dish, flashing as he does from signal to signal, shifting and changing and channeling character after character. He is totally and utterly compelling no matter who is coming through, whether it be an elderly woman, the teen-age Trevor, or the street-wise Frankie. He reminds us that we are part of a universe in which “every particle … touches every other particle,” that “whether [we] like it or not, [we're] connected … like dust.” As directed by Eve Ensler, the show was a breath of fresh air. I wish it had been around longer.
Dog Opera runs through Oct. 29 at the Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.