Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fifty Words, Bang and Clatter/Akron

(The folks in Fifty Words aren't the first married couple to spend a lot of time arguing in their kitchen, but the Honeymooners were lighted better.)

If you think it’s hard to be in a genuine, loving relationship in real life—with all its hidden resentments, overt physical attractions, and subtle gamesmanship—try capturing all that on stage. In about an hour.

That’s the task set forth in Fifty Words, now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Akron. And while the play by Michael Weller rings with authentic dialogue and believable, if sudden, shifts of tone, this two-person performance only hits about half the notes right. And that’s not nearly enough in a play this brief, intense and delicate.

It all takes place in a Brooklyn kitchen where architect Adam and novice Internet entrepreneur wife Jan have their first weekend night alone in six years. Their son Greg has been shipped off to a sleepover, and now mom and dad have some free time to concentrate on themselves. And that’s the bad news.

As Adam tries to casually seduce Jan, pouring wine and compliments in equal quantities, Jan is preoccupied with her new Internet marketing business. She’s frustrated by some faulty data she has purchased, trying to resolve it all for an important meeting in a couple days.

The tensions ebb and flow as Adam serves up some home delivered Chinese food and tries to coax his honey upstairs. But issues involving Greg’s problems at school and Adam’s failing business keep intruding. And it culminates in the most predictable nuclear bomb of all marital spats.

This is pretty familiar fare for most married couples with children, especially on stage. But there still are dramatic flashpoints if the director and players are on the same page. Unfortunately, director Sean McConaha doesn’t fully enable his actors to ride the dips and swells of this rocky relationship, and it all comes across as more detached and banal than intimate and incendiary.

The two actors, Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky, have done spectacular work together in the past. But here, each seems not able to offer what the other needs, whether they’re cooing or lashing out.

As Adam, Derry tries to soften his familiar, hard-ass stage persona, but he never seems totally comfortable in a romantic mode. Trouble is, we have to believe Adam can be that guy, if the dynamics of this couple are to be fully realized. Ultimately, Derry’s emotional shallowness doesn’t help bring Romansky’s Jan out of her persistent crouch, as she hunkers over her laptop and keeps batting away her husband’s advances.

There are moments when Jan seems warm and approachable, but they flicker away too quickly. If the lovable parts of Adam and Jan could be sensed more completely, the whole play would shift 90 degrees. And that would allow the playwright’s acidic take on the complexities of love to be fully realized (as Adam says, there should be 50 words for love, as the Eskimos have for snow).

There are other negative factors working against this production. The scenic design of the small kitchen is done almost all in black, with black cabinets and walls predominating. This would be OK, if the lighting wasn’t so atrocious. Lit dimly and with shadowy dead spots, most of the stage is bathed in a blue light like those fake night scenes from 1950s flicks.

It’s unlikely that there is one kitchen in America bathed in faint blue light, outside of an aging hippie’s basement pad somewhere near Haight-Ashbury. Even so, there’s enough light to see that these talented B&C actors need more help to make Fifty Words riveting and engaging.

Fifty Words
Through February 28 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre, 57 E. Market St.,
Akron (behind the parking lot next to Crave
Restaurant), 330-606-5317

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