Jelly Belly, at Victory Gardens Theater. Playwright Charles Smith created a fascinating character in Jelly Belly, a consummate manipulator by turns likable and smarmy, angry and needy, pathetic and dangerous. This seducer excels at playing like he has your best interests at heart while setting you up for a fall. Though he's summoned someone wonderful to life, Smith seems at a loss as to what to do with him.

So Smith plops him into the center of a bland domestic melodrama about an ex-druggie named Mike who's trying to build a nice life for himself, his wife, and their child. Jelly Belly, who's just returned from a stint in jail, tempts Mike with forbidden pleasures like crack, angel dust, and illegally obtained wads of cash.

Unfortunately, from the moment Jelly Belly slithers onto the scene, we really don't give a damn what happens to anyone other than him. And Smith's wafer-thin characters and his predictable, paint-by-numbers plot don't help.

Director Dennis Zacek clearly recognizes the problem and has cast two of the strongest actors in the show as Mike and Mike's wife--Tyrone David Beasley and Velma Austin--both of whom throw themselves into giving their roles the illusion of depth. But to no avail. Even when performed by A.C. Smith, an actor of less than complete range, Jelly Belly steals the show.

--Jack Helbig

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