Saturday, March 21, 2009

Theater reviews: 'Defiance' and 'Dead Man's Cell Phone'

Paul Tei, left, and Reiss Gaspard in Defiance.

By Hap Erstein

Doubt: It is both the title of John Patrick Shanley’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama and the theatrical element that he has been exploring of late.

Its shadow can be seen hovering over Defiance, his follow-up play and second part of a projected trilogy, currently on at GableStage.

While it is not up to its predecessor in quality and ambiguity, Defiance again puts ethics and personal quandaries center stage, offering actors a number of juicy roles which the GableStage cast devours.

The play draws on Shanley’s military background, set on the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during the height of the Vietnam War. Like Doubt, it pits old against young, two characters of conflicting ideologies, but unlike the earlier work’s territory of church morality, Defiance delves into the even more arcane territory of military protocol.

Matters revolve around ranking Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield (Bill Schwartz), an aging career officer trying to make his way to retirement without incident. With rising racial tensions in town and on the base, he promotes a young black Capt. Lee King (Reiss Gaspard) as a buffer against the unrest, much to the staunchly non-confrontational King’s displeasure. Heating up their inevitable clash is a wily Navy chaplain (Paul Tei) with his own agenda of provocation.

Director Joseph Adler gets a nicely nuanced performance from Gaspard as a man who would prefer invisibility to prominence. And Tei is cast against type, as far removed from his usual hip, edgy roles, which makes the chaplain all the more compelling.

Patti Gardner lends capable support as Littlefield’s dutiful, but questioning military wife and newcomer Ezra Jesse Bookman makes the most of a brief appearance as a soldier whose sudden desire to see action in Vietnam proves pivotal.

Defiance is more understated than most of GableStage’s fare. But that is just the spit-polished surface, with plenty of turmoil churning beneath the surface.

DEFIANCE, GableStage at The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday. Call (305) 445-1119.

Jim Ballard and Polly Noonan in Dead Man's Cell Phone.

In Mosaic Theatre’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, much-touted playwright Sarah Ruhl is also in a similar mood to the one she struck in The Clean House, the quirky comedy with intimations of mortality that she made her area debut with at the Caldwell Theatre two years ago.

But unfortunately, both works have intriguing premises that draw an audience in before losing their way and failing to make much of a point.

Still, who has not been annoyed by an incessantly ringing cell phone in close quarters? In Jean’s case, she is spending time in a peaceful café, when she is disrupted from the book she is reading by the phone of a guy at a nearby table. When he does not answer it and she makes the crucial decision to get involved, she realizes he has just expired.

The leap of faith Ruhl asks us to take with Jean is believing that she then feels compelled to become the unknown corpse’s personal answering service, pocketing the phone and taking his subsequent calls. His name is Gordon, as it turns out, and Jean becomes a sympathetic ear to his family, acquaintances and lover, eventually meeting them and getting enmeshed in their lives as well.

Jean’s submersion into this man’s former life has been likened to Lewis Carroll’s Alice free-falling down the rabbit hole. And if that analogy absolves Ruhl from any further explanations of behavior, it is probably apt.

Over the course of the play, she meets Gordon’s pushy, imperious mother (an obtusely comic Barbara Bradshaw), his socially inept brother Dwight (Antonio Amadeo), his deadpan, increasingly inebriated widow (Deborah L. Sherman) and his sleek mistress (Erin Joy Schmidt). Jean finds herself telling them each what they want to hear about Gordon’s last moments alive or otherwise meeting their needs, as when she forges a romantic bond with Dwight.

Offbeat would be an understatement for Jean, but somehow Polly Noonan, who originated the role in Washington in 2007, makes her nervous insecurities endearing. Also a standout is Jim Ballard as Gordon, who gets the opportunity to have his say in the second act, even though he is deceased.

If Ruhl were only out for laughs, she certainly knows how to get them. But she keeps creeping into darker territory, suggesting she has something more to say. Such faux-profundity can be entertaining, even if it ultimately brings to mind the fabled emperor and his new clothes.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, Mosaic Theatre, 12200 W. Broward Blvd., Plantation. Through Sunday. Call: (954) 577-8243.


Anonymous said...

That's not Antonio Amadeo in the picture - it's Jim Ballard.

Greg Stepanich said...

Our mistake, which has been corrected.

Thanks for catching it.