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Ravenswood/The Ringmaster

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RAVENSWOOD

Quando Productions
at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

Ravenswood is a funny little play about the guests at a "463-clams-a-day" retreat for neurotic couples run by an insane guru named Dr. Pepper. Don't expect any insights about love and the human psyche. It's a silly work, and that's OK. Playwright Terrence McNally gives his characters some audacious one-liners, the audience laughs a lot, and few people seem to mind that the play doesn't offer much of a conclusion.

Ravenswood was originally half of a double bill that won McNally an Obie and a Dramatists' Guild award in 1974. I don't know how any play that ends with a toast and a chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" could win two awards, but it did. The script seems to lose all sense of direction about two-thirds of the way through, and it seems to be more McNally's fault than director Buff Lee's. Lee milks the play for its humor, a good (if obvious) choice, but I wish he'd done more to shape the end.

Basically, this is the plot: three couples with chronic relationship problems come to be healed by Dr. Pepper. They lose their inhibitions and are cured, more or less. The end.

The play works because the characters are so interesting. Dr. Jason Pepper seems totally unfit to be a marriage counselor. He's a wheelchair-bound, martini-drinking eccentric who wears fuzzy pink pig slippers and chain-smokes expensive imported tobacco that was fertilized with chicken dung. The audience gets a feel for what he's like at the beginning of the show, when he speaks with Mrs. Dolly Scupp, who has unsuccessfully tried to kill her husband several times because he's a compulsive neat freak. Scupp seems more sane than Dr. Pepper. Especially when Dr. Pepper announces, "I hate Germans. It was a German who incapacitated me." "The war?" Mrs. Scupp asks politely. "My wife," he says dourly.

That's the kind of humor in Ravenswood, and when it works it's incredibly funny. Tim Glisson as Hiram Spane "of the Newport Spanes" and Vince Ridout as his lover Francis Tear "of the Baltimore Tears" steal the show with dead-on delivery of some of its funniest lines. One reason their lines come off so well is that both actors have a solid understanding of their characters and see them as complete people.

Unfortunately, most of the other actors (with the exception of Dr. Pepper) haven't delved as deeply, and their characters come off as comical but less believable. It simply isn't plausible that characters like April James and Roy Pitt (Marian Hank-Tomasello and John Braun) would stay together just because they're both insecure, competitive, phony Hollywood actors. Dolly and Harry Scupp (Anne Reifsteck and Wayne Bassi) could also use a bit more depth.

All the same, the play moves quickly and humorously to its wimpy end. It's worth the price of admission just to see Hiram and Francis squabble over who won the swimming race.

THE RINGMASTER

PMAC Productions
at Cafe Voltaire

The Ringmaster, which takes place in an institution for the mentally disturbed, could have been a chilling, powerful play about life, death, and the human psyche, but playwright Ryan Gaudet made a wrong plot turn at a crucial point. And despite the actors' best efforts, the play ends up being a little silly.

Gaudet's premise is interesting. A quadriplegic named Myers has given up all desire to live but is physically incapable of killing himself. He asked his brother to kill him, but his brother institutionalized him. Myers finds out about another patient named John, a paranoid schizophrenic who will do anything--even kill--to keep a secret he has. Myers persuades the hospital authorities to let him talk with John, and proceeds to convince John that he can and will get the secret out of him.

Does John tell his secret, or does he kill Myers to protect it? The, play would have been more truthful and poignant if it didn't end the way it does--and if Gaudet hadn't created a third character, Jeremy, who is far too sensitive for this world, to tell John the right thing to do.

Gary Simmers is chilling as Myers. Jonathan Goldman as Jeremy and Scott Cooper as John both give solid performances. But Gaudet's uninspired plot twist undercuts their achievements.

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