“When I think about things I don’t understand, I get depressed,” says dimbulb R.J. (Ryan Tumulty) in Risk Everything, the better of the two George F. Walker one-acts now being produced by 1st Stage. R.J. gets depressed a lot. But for the rest of us, in a context where truth is as elusive as quicksilver, the primary sensation is elation. The heart races, and then stops, and then races some more.
Like the Bay Theater’s superb Mauritius, Risk Everything is primarily a story of lies in service to greed. In the 1st Stage production, the liar-in-chief is Carol (the fabulous Leigh Jameson), who has pilfered a tidy sum of money from the brutal gangster Steamboat Jeffries. Steamboat has already had Carol worked over once before the play opens, and the principal business of the story is the effort of Carol’s daughter Denise (Nevie Brooks) to get Carol to return the stolen money, thus preventing Steamboat from exacting some lunatic revenge. It is hard going.
The chief joy of seeing a thriller is to watch the plot unfold, so let me move to the performances. Jameson is perfect as the Jack Daniels-guzzling desperado with the stolen money; you can practically see the tire tracks of her life on her worn body, and her eyes carry a startling sizzle and snap in her dead face. She is skating on the edge of the abyss and, you can see, loving it. Brooks turns in her second consecutive 1st-class performance at 1st Stage (she previously excelled in Humble Boy), sweating to break free of her horrendous mother’s complicated control while trying to save her life, as well as that of her moronic husband, R.J. As the moronic husband, Tumulty gives us a brief tutorial on the mindset of a man who is stupid, who knows it, and who hates it. It is comic, and it is compassionate.
The only false note in this little gem is Brian Razzino as Michael, who appears as the pornographer in the next room. This isn’t Razzino’s fault; he does serviceable work but the way he is written, he appears to have walked in from another play. Oh, wait – he has walked in from another play, Featuring Loretta, the first Act of the two-Act production. Suburban Motel is actually a six-play roundelay, in which characters wander from one play to the next. Featuring Loretta and Risk Everything are the last two plays of the six-play cycle. When you establish a rule that at least one character in a play must appear in the next play, you may not be risking everything but you are risking artificiality and inauthenticity, and Michael’s appearance in Risk Everything seems forced and unnatural.
Featuring Loretta, the earlier one-Act, is less interesting as a play and less successful as a production. Loretta (Alice Gibson) is an attractive woman whose life is in shambles. Pregnant, her husband dead (he was eaten by bears), she has moved to another part of the country, where she waitresses and variously dreams of being a calendar girl, a porn star or an exotic dancer in Japan. Ensconced in a suburban motel – the same one where Carol later schemes – she is hounded by phone calls from her family, her dead husband’s family, and others, all of whom would like her to make better choices than she has before. In her motel-room existence, she is hounded by Dave (Zachary Fernebok), who professes to love her (but who apparently wants her principally to make a good impression on his boss so that he can score a promotion), and by Michael, who, um, wants to make her a star. This is O.K. with Loretta, who just wants to make enough money so that she can stop people from telling her what to do all the time.
This setup allows Walker to make some heavyhanded points about the commodification of beauty, but he abandons them midway through the show in favor of an antic relationship between Dave and Michael. Director Jason Schlafstein, who brought the legendary The Naked Party to the Fringe in 2008, plays these moments for yuks, but the effect is somewhat labored. Phones ring incessantly, people yell at each other, characters are always hammering on the door, and not a moment goes by without us being reminded that We Are Being Amused. The final scene (fight choreography by Christian Sullivan) is funny, but I felt like I climbed a mountain to see it.
I am sorry to report that I believed Gibson in the title role only intermittently, and that it seemed as though her performance also affected Fernebok’s. From the very first moments, when she runs through a telephone conversation with her sister at such speed that it would have been impossible for the sister to say anything, Gibson seems to give her character only two expressions: anger, and the struggle to hide anger. Fernebok is similarly over the top in his first scene with Gibson, and their work together makes it difficult to warm to the play. On the other hand, Razzino does strong work as Michael and Kristen Garaffo gives a sweet performance as the motel owner’s daughter in a subplot of questionable relevance.
Although there were some technical problems in the production of Featuring Loretta that I saw, Peter Van Valkenburgh’s sound design is excellent. Of particular note is a moment when the motel’s owner calls the room; the sound – audible throughout the theater – actually emanates from the phone itself. A delicious sense of irony guides the musical selection, including, hilariously, Gary Puckett’s “This Girl is a Woman Now” at the ridiculous close of Featuring Loretta.
By George F. Walker
Featuring Loretta directed by Jason Schlafstein
Risk Everything directed by David Winkler
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Suburban Motel runs thru July 3, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer