The two one-acts Above and Beyond and The Silence of Dr and Mrs Caligari, as presented by Playwrights Local at Waterloo Arts, each have intriguing aspects. But those are somewhat defeated by the decisions of the director, on one hand, and the playwright on the other.
In Above and Beyond, playwright Faye Sholiton takes us back to a day in 1973 when the world was teetering on the brink of an Armageddon-like conflict. Russia and the US were facing off over a serious conflict in the Middle East, and in a missile silo 60 feet under ground in Utah sit two American soldiers tasked with launching nuclear-tipped missiles.
Marc (James Alexander Rankin) and his superior officer Darren (Nicholas Chokan) are passing the time rather idly until horns blare, red lights flash, and they are alerted to a new and more dangerous DEFCON alert status. They are now at DEFCON 3, a level that had not been reached since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Immersed in this tension, the two men still converse about other things: the guy who used to work with them who lost it mentally, Darren’s history as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam, and how Marc is hot to have sex with his honey.
This 40-minute piece strikes thematic notes that are similar to a recent play by another local playwright—Grounded by George Brant. Each play focuses on soldiers who have their fingers on the buttons of destruction, and what it does to them as human beings.
In this piece, the well-known local playwright Sholiton seeks to capture the hanging-by-a-thread nature of our existence in the nuclear bomb world. And she does develop some sweaty moments. But the talented director Craig Joseph doesn’t draw out all the potential of this script, compelling his actors to chat at an overly brisk pace. Indeed, if you’re stuck in an underground bunker with another person for eight hours or more, chances are you’re going to pace your conversations a bit more languidly.
Above and Beyond might play believably with more silences, less over-heated acting (by Chokan in particular), and an absence of odd blocking choices. To wit, at one point Joseph has both men sitting on the floor, for no apparent reason.
It all ends with a silence (finally) that might have landed with more impact had the preceding dialogue been directed with more focus on the ghastly absurdity of the situation they (and all of us) live in.
In The Silence of Dr and Mrs Caligari there are more quiet moments than in A&B, but they don’t necessarily work to the play’s benefit. As playwright (and performer) Robert Hawkes notes in the program, this one-hour play is not meant to be connected, plot-wise, to the iconic, silent German expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Sure it has a cabinet, and a young man named Cesare dressed in black who emerges from that box in a zombie-like state, just like the “somnambulist” in the film. But that is where the similarities to the film end. Instead, Dr. C (Hawkes) and his wife (Anne McEvoy) are just sharing a quiet evening at home—she playing solitaire while complaining about how he treats her, and he sharing his thoughts on various random philosophical points.
As they carp at each other and fail to connect, it seems a bit like the old radio show “The Bickersons” if it had been co-written by Albert Camus. Still, Hawkes and McEvoy make it all quite interesting as a mesmerizing Ray Caspio, the moody and mystical Cesare silently enters the room accompanied by snatches of classical music. The good doctor is trying to make sense of this while his wife, blessedly, couldn’t care less.
Unfortunately, it all becomes much less interesting once Cesare begins to speak, nattering on about being “free from time” and such. Not only that, in an apparent attempt to escape the brooding mood of the film, all three even play a couple rounds of musical chairs.
Despite the deft direction of Susan Soltis, this is a high-concept one-act that is too clever by three-quarters. Because, like it or not, when you link your play to a renowned film and also recreate a couple of the main characters, you’ve hooked yourself to that wagon. And this turns out to be a wagon with one or two thematic wheels missing.
As a result, the goals as expressed by the playwright in the program are never fully realized on stage. And even the witty conversational wordplay that writer Hawkes is so good at can’t save the day, or the play.
2 1-Act Plays
Through November 18 at Playwrights Local, Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156 St., playwrightslocal.org., 216-302-8856.