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Pass the Love/Doubles

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PASS THE LOVE

Circle Theatre

DOUBLES

Goose Island Theatre

Many psychologists describe a child brought for treatment as the "identified patient"--the one other family members believe to be sick. These psychologists recognize that a troubled child is usually a symptom of deep turmoil within the family. A child might be misbehaving, for example, to divert the parents from their incessant arguments. A child pegged as the "black sheep" might be just a safe and convenient target for the anger and frustration other family members feel for each other.

Playwright Les White has built Pass the Love on this phenomenon. The play is about two sisters and their families who are trying to have a relatively peaceful Thanksgiving dinner. To do this, however, they must eat in the dark so that Ginger, the black-sheep daughter of Mark and Anita Bialywos, will think they're not home. "She has to learn that she cannot manipulate us," the girl's father announces as everyone gropes around blindly.

When Ginger finally gets into the house, she serves as a powerful catalyst, instantly changing the chemistry of the gathering. Her eccentric behavior causes the deepest secrets of the family members to bubble to the surface, exposing the source of the rivalry and resentment that plague the two families.

This is a promising premise. The subtle but insidious dynamics of a family can be intensely dramatic, funny, and suspenseful--all elements of great theater. But White, who has written for several soap operas, fails to exploit the opportunities this premise provides. His plot lingers forever on insignificant details, then lurches right past decisive moments, leaving suspense behind. His characters, despite all their shouting at each other, never develop distinct personalities. And he fails to find humor in either the absurd or the grotesque aspects of the situation. Instead of a perceptive portrait of two families in crisis, White gives us a banal caricature.

On the surface, these two families seem perfectly ordinary. Mark Bialywos, played by Peter Boekhoff, is a survivor of the concentration camps who came to the United States after the war and became a doctor. His wife Anita (Carole Borg) is . . . well, she's a character with no distinguishing characteristics. She's just the wife of Mark and the mother of Scott (Dean Kharasch), who, judging by his repeated attempts at sarcasm, is supposed to be alienated and angry.

At the other end of the table is Anita's rival sibling, Leona (Barbara Eulenberg), who actually starts an argument with her sister over which of them most resembles their mother. Leona is married to Dan (Kevin Michael Doolan), the wealthy owner of a successful doorbell factory. Their son Bruce (Marc Stopeck) is bland and agreeable--a mere mouthpiece for the values and opinions of his parents.

The entire first act consists of these people chattering mindlessly as they eat in the dark. (Lighting designer Dan Klest uses pale blue lights to make the actors visible while still suggesting total darkness.) The sisters quibble over the upkeep on their mother's grave, for example, and Mark wonders--at great length--if the mushrooms in the turkey stuffing are European or domestic. A small dose of this would establish the petty, high-strung nature of these people. A half-hour of it suggests that the play has nowhere to go and is just killing time.

So the arrival of the notorious Ginger is welcome--to the audience, at least. Ginger, an anorexic, pretends to be starving, so her mother feeds her like a baby. When she gets her strength back, she interrupts the conversation by standing on a chair, extending her arms like the crucified Christ, and making provocative confessions. Each one elicits surprising secrets from the others. When she announces "I am a lesbian," Mark reveals that when he was six years old he let a German officer fondle him. When she announces "I am an incest victim," her brother makes a speech about how he wants to experience the horrors their father endured in the concentration camps, "so I can know what it's like to be a man."

And so it goes, until the family members, fed up with her provocations, pull Ginger down on the table and kill her. Or do they? "Look!" her cousin shouts in the final line of the play. "Her hand . . . it moved."

Although the play is receiving its world premiere at Circle Theatre, a small company located in Forest Park, its problems cannot be blamed on the production. Boekhoff and Doolan are both experienced actors who bring energy and nuance to their performances. Lara Novey brings a deranged passion to her portrayal of Ginger, while Eulenberg endows Leona with the smug, judgmental attitude of a woman struggling to assert her worth.

No, the problem is that the playwright either didn't know where he wanted to go with this play or didn't know how to get there. In a program note he talks about a workshop for children of Holocaust survivors, at which a therapist said that Thanksgiving is an especially painful time because it brings to mind those family members who did not survive. White apparently sees a connection between this and the play he has written, but what that connection might be remains a mystery.

Doubles, by David Wiltse, is another comedy about a group of Jews invaded by an outsider who threatens their complacency.

In this case, the Jews are three men who meet once a week at a health club in Norwalk, Connecticut, to play tennis. The outsider is a gentile--from Duluth, Minnesota, for God's sake--who fills in one day when the fourth member of the group can't make it.

Like Pass the Love, Doubles at first doesn't seem to know where it wants to go. The action is episodic, and devoted almost exclusively to establishing the personalities of the characters. Lennie, played with plenty of Type A anger by Lee Kanne, is hostile to the newcomer, whose name is Guy. Lennie is competitive, and dislikes the fact that Guy is a terrific tennis player who writes for a tennis magazine. He also resents Guy's rigid morality and his erudite lectures comparing tennis to medieval combat. George, on the other hand, warms quickly to Guy, and eventually starts inviting him and his wife over for dinner. Arnie, a frequent victim of Lennie's juvenile practical jokes, comes to admire Guy for disapproving of Lennie's predations.

Each man goes through a crisis. Lennie, who manages a supermarket for his father-in-law, realizes his wife is unhappy with him. George, a stockbroker, is under investigation by the SEC. Arnie, whose wife discovers his infidelities, sues for divorce. And Guy loses his job. By sharing their troubles, the outsider is incorporated into the group, and the play becomes a tribute to the simple joys of friendship.

Because the plot is episodic, moving leisurely toward a sweet, sentimental conclusion, the success of Doubles depends heavily on the cast. The actors in this Goose Island production, directed by David Whitaker, convey competently what the playwright wrote, but they don't add the kind of details that might reveal a deeper subtext. Fred Wellisch, for example, with his relaxed crooning of old songs, conveys George's enforced serenity, a skill he developed by growing up with a hysterical mother. ("My mother likes to throw herself into graves," he jokes. "She'll dive in before the coffin.") Randy Craig manages to project the loneliness and bewilderment that Arnie experiences when faced with divorce, but he generates none of the sexual spark that a womanizer would need. And while Michael Rapp embodies Guy's rectitude and bookishness, he doesn't quite radiate the chilly reserve that would show why he is so puzzling to his warm and voluble new friends.

Without that something extra that great actors can bring to their roles, Doubles remains a pleasant, engaging comedy. In a sense, the play is the opposite of Pass the Love--the playwright knows where he wants to go with the play, but the destination isn't very exciting. At least he knows how to provide a pleasant trip.

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