Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talking Heads 2, Beck Center

(Dorothy Silver as Violet)

If you like classical music, you’ll love at least half of Talking Heads 2 at the Beck Center. Because playwright Alan Bennett crafts words like Mozart crafted notes, combing the seemingly banal with surprising flourishes and deeply emotional passages, resulting in small one-act treasures.

The two monologues that comprise this production involve two people who have washed up onto a lonely place in their own isolated worlds. And although the two pieces are very different, in both subject matter and quality of presentation, they merge to form an interesting evening of theater.

By far, the most compelling of the two monologues is “Waiting for the Telegram,” another (ho-hum) tour de force by Dorothy Silver, who plays nursing home nonagenarian Violet. As Salieri said of Mozart in the movie Amadeus, playwright Bennett’s beginning is "simple, almost comic,” as Violet describes how an elderly gentleman exposed his penis to her and other women in the home. She is far from shocked about his revealed “whatchamacallit” and declines a reparative counseling session, while the other ladies are just completely oblivious.

But as she goes on to talk about her past, often forgetting words and trying to follow the advice of her caretakers to “just describe it if you can’t think of its name,” Violet orchestrates a story of sharp regret and loss. As she rhapsodizes about the muscular arms of her male nurse Francis, she segues into thinking about a long-ago love and a moment in time she wishes she could recapture and do over.

Silver plays Bennett’s prose like the unsurpassed pro she is, squeezing every laugh and titter out of Violet’s frank and often cynical personality while fully exploring her physical and emotional vulnerabilities. Never leaving her wheelchair, she and her husband, director Reuben Silver, compose an ode to faded wishes and diminished capacity that is detailed and comprehensive—all in about 50 minutes.

In the other monologue that begins the evening, the excellent actor Robert Hawkes only scratches the surface of “Playing Sandwiches.” In this piece, playwright Bennett carefully layers a portrait of a middle-aged man named Wilfred who labors as a maintenance worker in a public park. Amidst the predictable accounts of the yucky messes he is forced to clean up, and the sweet visions of kiddies and their mums playing nearby, we come to learn that Wilfred has a demon that haunts him.

This fact emerges slowly, with hints dropped along the way in a tantalizing fashion until the depth of his depravity comes into focus. But Hawkes, who is not aided in his task by director Curt Arnold, rushes a multitude of beats and sweeps them into the dustbin, keeping his character anchored in a bland, semi-distracted middle ground. Since we aren’t allowed to see either Wilfred’s engaging and warm side, nor his darker aspect, the rich and multicolored role that Bennett has written—disturbing though it is—comes out threadbare and (of all things) uninteresting.

The overall production seems a bit odd, since the brief opening one-act is followed by an intermission well before an hour has passed. But that interval would be needed if “Playing Sandwiches” were played out to the hilt. In any case, it’s worth it all to see Dorothy Silver, once again at her finest in a role that Alan Bennett was completely unaware that he had written just for her.

Talking Heads 2
Through December 7 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

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