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Law/Order/Dry Rot

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LAW/ORDER

Center Theater

Elizabeth Shepherd's Law/Order tackles some compelling topics. In just about an hour it deals with victims of crime, motives of criminals, the exploitation of victims by society, subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism, police tactics, and sexual molestation. So it's a shame that Center Theater seems to have rushed this play to the stage, offering a production of a work that still seems very much in progress.

Structured as a flashback drama, Law/Order is about the lingering effects of a violent crime. In the first scene a woman named Connie describes to a pair of police officers how a disturbed young man broke into her house, forced her to tie up her husband and her young female houseguest, and proceeded to terrorize them at rifle point.

The flashback setup allows Shepherd to juxtapose the behavior of the criminal and the abusive questioning by one of the police officers. In the following scene Connie goes on a sleazy TV talk show to discuss her grief with an unctuous, phony host played by the same actor who played the criminal in scene one. Like the criminal, the talk-show host victimizes Connie, using a TV camera and microphone instead of a gun. The two actors who played the cops in the first scene show up in the roles of bogus experts trying to "help" Connie, though they're really out to further their careers before a national audience.

In both scenes it's Connie's kind, selfless husband Jack who saves the day by turning the tables on the victimizers. Shepherd's use of double casting to draw parallels between different forms of abusive behavior--a ploy that's been used to good effect by authors like Caryl Churchill--is interesting. And some moments of Law/Order seem to spring out of real life. The plight of Connie and Jack recalls the recent David Biro double murder in Winnetka, and Connie's torn and confused character seems an accurate depiction of a person who can't stop living the same horrible story over and over.

The other characters are not quite as well developed. Connie's sweet, saintly Jack doesn't get much beyond the "noble husband" role. The good cop/bad cop characters are cartoonish, and the oily talk-show host is just another straw man waiting to be blown down. The character of the criminal isn't particularly well developed either, but this isn't as troublesome because the sketchiness underscores the senselessness of his crime and the impossibility of trying to figure out what drove him.

The scenes have an unpolished, uncertain feel to them, as if they were still being workshopped. The TV talk-show scene in particular seems overly obvious and choppy. The final scene, which tries to tie up some loose ends, is preachy--the author seems to be describing her feelings about crime rather than those of the characters.

The uncertainty of the script carries over into the uncertainty of the performances. JoAnn Carney as Connie and Alfred Wilson as Jack give believable, intelligent performances, but they seem unsure of themselves, as if they don't quite trust the material they've been given. As the two talk-show guests, Dave Kappas and Paul Hobbs deliver mugging, unbeliev- able performances, and Patrick McCartney, slyly menacing as the criminal, becomes too hammy as the talk-show host. A lot of good stuff is going on in Law/Order, but it simply isn't a complete, polished play yet.

DRY ROT

Knee Deep Theater Company
at the Neo-Futurarium

If one were penning an original translation and adaptation of a classic Roman comedy and then directing it, one would assume the translating and adapting would be more difficult. Meredith Neuman seems to have gotten that notion backwards in Dry Rot, her adaptation of Plautus's Mostellaria. Her writing is deft, clever, and crisp, but she lets herself down by directing a lackluster production.

Neuman the writer has scripted a free and natural-sounding version of Plautus's tale of trickery, debauchery, and retribution. Philolaches is living a life of gambling and drink while his father is abroad. When his father returns unexpectedly, it's left to Philolaches' servant Tranio to trick the old man with improbable tales to prevent him from discovering what his son has been up to. The servant is of course smarter than his master, though sometimes too smart for his own good.

The play is written as a farce with some mysterious and ominous undertones. Neuman uses the image of houses rotting away to represent the life-style of the Roman citizens, and a cheerful knife-wielding ghost to wreak vengeance upon the play's characters for their depravity. The dialogue is for the most part a comfortable mixture of heightened speech and everyday language. Occasionally there's a lapse into lazy American speech patterns--the phrase "Yeah, right" sticks out uncomfortably at one point. But the rhythms are usually on target, and the language is witty.

Such an adaptation cries out for a distinguished, fun-loving cast to rip through it and highlight the humor. Alas, the material seems beyond the reach of a lot of the Knee Deep Theater actors. Neuman credits all of the actors for working through improvisation to develop the adaptation, but several of the cast members are just not believable. There's far too much raucous laughter and flopping about on the stage, as well as some annoying "Look at me--I'm onstage" unprofessionalism. It gets a little tiring to see every drunk giggle as if Roman air were composed primarily of laughing gas. Moreover, Neuman's staging is frequently static and dull.

Joe Paulson has some nice moments as Philolaches, and Craig Shaynak displays good comic timing as Theopropides, the father. The cast is filled with new faces, and the entire production has a refreshing lack of pretension. But it will take some work before Knee Deep is ready for the big time.

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