Watershed | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Playwrights' Center

Writing classes often emphasize exercises that are designed solely to encourage writing. Teachers will tell students not to worry about quality, just write it down. The beginning writer concentrates on writing, ultimately learning to discriminate between that which tells a provocative story and that which bores itself to sleep.

Within this framework, the Playwrights' Center is found guilty of bad judgment by choosing to produce Watershed, a new play by David Nava. What's worse is that the Center seems to be a repeat offender, but that's a different review.

The crime of Watershed is that it has very little to say, and manages to say even that poorly. Kenneth (Jim MacDowell) and his wife Kay (Maria Michaels Hughes) both in their mid-thirties, run a summer stock theater company on a southern college campus. Kenneth is the brilliant director at the college, while Kay, apparently, can act. Joining them is Damon (Charles Herbst), an impossibly cynical playwright who once studied under Kenneth.

For the summer, Kenneth has gathered a cast of young actors who are so ambitious and eager that they will do anything to please their elders. From this cast, Kenneth has selected two to entertain at an informal party one summer night--Harriet (Megan Warner) and Eric (Dave Hardwick). Kay, meanwhile, has her eyes on a third cast member, Stuart (Kirk Austensen), who is boarding with them. It becomes clear at the start of the play, that the leaders use the theater each summer to procure sexual playmates. A bit unusual, one might think, until Kenneth assures Harriet (and us) that, in the theater, "we're not bound to conventional standards."

As luck would have it, dramatic conflict rears its ugly head and the new summer recruits reject the neat sexual package arranged by Kenneth and Kay. The young actors, who still believe in love, truth, and decency, are appalled by the older pair. The youngsters probably also wash behind their ears and say their prayers every night, though playwright Nava's moralizing stops short of that.

The lessons Nava does try to impart are ambiguous. Harriet and Stuart, for example, are both outraged, but only at the degree of licentiousness to which they've been manipulated: a little romp with someone else's spouse would be OK, if it were spontaneous. And Kenneth and Kay, who might have learned something from being rejected, quickly find solace in the arms of new lovers.

Neither the lines nor the direction help matters much. Typical of the scintillating dialogue is an encounter between Eric and playwright Damon: Eric, leaning close to examine a medallion of Saint Christopher on Damon's chest, says, "but he isn't a saint anymore." "Neither am I," replies Damon, as the lights black out on the scene.

The show was also weighed down by director Hetty Mayer-MacDowell's frequent use of blackouts. She used them during scenes in which characters are spread around the stage in small groups carrying on simultaneous conversations. While one group has the light the others remain silent. The light then goes black and another group is illuminated. This constant dimming and lightening inhibited any rhythm the play might have developed, and was even used inconsistently: sometimes, when a couple was not in the spotlight, they would assume frozen postures; yet other times they would continue to silently mouth their words as if the conversations truly were simultaneous.

Maria Michaels Hughes, while providing most of the evening's infrequent sincere moments as the embittered Kay, nevertheless tainted her work with histrionic cascades into despair. Kirk Austensen also managed a believable moment or two as Stuart--which might have been all a Laurence Olivier could have accomplished given the same lines.

Jim MacDowell plays the arrogant Kenneth with a remarkable lack of flair or commitment to the character. Dave Hardwick and Megan Warner's young characters were every bit as eager and serious as puppy dogs on stimulants. And Charles Herbst was simply loud and annoying.

I want to be persuaded in the theater--want to learn about people I haven't met, or come to new understandings about people I already know. But the characters in Watershed are quite removed from reality. There's not even a passing reference to AIDS in this 1987 play about sexual promiscuity. Nava's characters frolic as if it were 1975, spotlighting the play's failure to comment believably on contemporary sexual discourse.

I know there are better original scripts waiting in Chicago. Why can't the Playwrights' Center find them?

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