Public Affairs – For Your Eyes Lonely
I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for theater companies that do the work of a well-known playwright and then pick that writer’s most obscure, ridiculously out-of-character piece to perform. These are the stages who are like “Well, what the hell? No one knows this and it’ll probably flop, but let’s put it on anyway!”. So it is with Fells Point Corner. Instead of just going ahead and doing Love Letters, FPCT puts up A. R. Gurney’s Public Affairs, an artificially mashed version of two of his short plays, The Love Course and The Open Meeting. That’s like deciding to do a Shakespeare, whizzing right past A Midsummer Night’s Dream and settling on Coriolanus. Even Gurney himself said of The Open Meeting: “This play never got the laughs I thought it deserved, but I have yet to give up on it.” It’s like he’s the wartime bedside nurse of his own failed piece, trying his best to buck up morale. Just fascinating. Except, well, it doesn’t fail, somehow. These two pieces, thematically, tie together quite well. What’s private is public and the general becomes the specific REAL quick. In The Love Course (the easier, less Pinterrific of acts), we find two long-in-the-tooth academics, Professor Burgess (Tony Colavito) and Professor Carroway (Andrea Bush). They’ve been teaching a course all semester on great love and have fallen into a rather…um…close…meeting of the minds. In fact, you could say they are mind-fucking, right there in front of everyone. We all become the “unwitting voyeurs” of their strange passions, no one more so than two of their hapless students, Sally (Caroline Kiebach) and Mike (Andrew Porter). Professor Carroway, especially (as her name suggests) lets herself get carried away with all this bookish wooing and becomes kind of a Manic Pixie Steam Roller, flapping around in an absolutely perfect large black shawl and apparently making quite a spectacle of herself at an off-stage faculty meeting. Colavito and Bush have a great chemistry, I loved their intentional doublespeak and the way they turn into the King and Queen of Projection Island, dragging those poor, young co-eds into their weird, yet, oh-so-pure, affair. Kiebach and Porter, though, are also great at making the space feel personal as their conversations in front of the blackboard get oddly and intensely private, suddenly – it made me both need to listen and want to turn away, shyly. Bush shines especially brightly here, flirting back and forth across the stage whilst flagrantly displaying the twisted eroticism that comes from getting most of your information about sex from Bronte. I enjoyed the way that director Lynda McClary is not constrained by the confines of the physical stage and takes the action rather appropriately into the audience – some of the harsh shadows of the house lights really emphasize the actor’s features, making them look a little alien/Disney villianish. Next up after all this panting is bucket of ice water that is The Open Meeting, which is what I felt the more interesting, if difficult, portion of the show. Here we find ourselves at an ill-defined, unspecified, shady meeting of a bunch of ill-defined, unspecified, shady people. Never mind exactly who they are, anyway, all meetings from the PTA to the House of Representatives will all eventually merge into one giant, feeding, bitching, grumbling meeting at the end of time. No, what matters is what they represent. We have Verna (Cherie Weinert), Eddie (Andrew Porter) and Roy (Tony Colavito). You find these types at all meetings, they’re really just short hand for Status Quo, Progress and Authority. Roy, as Authority, wants to wait for the proper man (Dick is his name, SUBTLE) to show up, go through the proper channels, make the proper documents, and is probably properly double crossing everyone in the end. Verna, Status Quo, flirts with Progress and Authority but ultimately will do whatever it takes to make sure everything stays almost exactly the same as it was. And Eddie, Progress, is rude, blunt, a little stupid and a little right. These Robert’s Fools of Order get increasingly bizarre, eventually there is gun play, there are “things” going on behind the scenes – there are always “things”. There are always backstabbers, schedules, budgets, minutes, documents, stick-in-the-muds. The Open Meeting is like watching a soap opera, having a stroke, and listening to wire-tap at the same time. Weinert is dazzling, self-possessed, effortless, magnetic. I loved her in this spring’s 4 by Chekhov at FPCT and I loved her again, maybe even more, here. She has got it going on. Porter makes an about face from fresh frat boy to kinda slimy agitator nicely. And Colavito is a splendid stanch supporter. Even though it’s like watching a film noir in Chinese, they are always committed, they know where it’s going, they are confident, and so we follow them. I had a physical reaction to the set (design by Lynda McClary) and it puzzled me, at first, as to why I detested it so much. I smiled when I realized that it was just perfect, an amalgam of every ugly classroom, meeting room, courthouse suite, hotel lobby, multi-purpose room I’ve ever been forced to spend an hour in.
BOTTOM LINE: Public Affairs is a study of a thin ice of funny juuuust barely covering a real big ocean of true. The cast is willing to go there, to find the fears of the clown, to exist at the intersection of hysterically laughing and sobbing way too much. It’s a sizzly, absurd, fuerte, risky opener that perks me for FPCT’s 2014-2015 season. Hat tip.
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until October 4th.
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