"THE BOSTON PLAYS," by Bill Lattanzi, Janet Kenney, Michael Bettencourt, Ginger Lazarus, Joe Byers, and Dean O'Donnell. Directed by Greg Smucker. Set design by Loann West. Lighting by Amy Lee. Costumes by Bob Pagliarulo. Sound by Rick Brenner. With Chris Chew, Mary Kearney, Joseph J. Pearlman, SerahRose Roth, and Joe Siriani. Presented by Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts, through October 28 .
One nice thing about a good short play is that it leaves you with so much to talk about. The playwright usually avoids telling you too little (so you don't get stuck on the question "What was that about?"), and he or she avoids piling on so many revelations that the characters disappear under the weight of them. Of the six works in "The Boston Plays," all by local playwrights, none is obscure in meaning, but a couple left me wanting to know less.
We begin with Bill Lattanzi's My Way, a five-minute sketch about a young guy (Chris Chew) who pulls a Ralph Kramden on his live-in girlfriend (SerahRose Roth). He proclaims that he's the king of the castle and she better get used to it, but his nervous pacing makes it clear that she's in complete control -- even when she says nothing. This piece is certainly economical, and there's a kick in watching Chew stomp around the stage and contradict everything coming out of his mouth.
Janet Kenney's What Mother Knows opens with the title character (Mary Kearney) sitting on a porch with a cocktail and getting under the skin of her teenage daughter (Roth). "My varicose veins are killing me," she says. "They're from child-birthing, you know." To judge from her daughter's response, Mom has said this plenty of times before. We learn that the daughter's sullenness is related to her upcoming high-school prom, and specifically to complications caused by Mom's behavior. Kearney and Roth are nicely low-key in this vignette, and Kenney's script is deceptively simple. As you watch the play, the mother is the center of attention; in retrospect, the more intriguing question raised by What Mother Knows is whether the daughter will go down the same path.
We move from family politics to social commentary with Michael Bettencourt's Click, a Pinteresque tale (if you want to avoid that adjective, don't name a character Pinto) about an act of violence in a London park. A young man (Joseph J. Pearlman) brags to his roommate (Chew), who is apparently also his lover, that he is responsible for the crime described in the morning newspaper, and we slowly learn the terrible details. The reversal of expectations in Click is none too subtle, and any empathy with the characters is washed away by the gratuitously peculiar language. The phrase "daddies of sugar" sticks out in my mind, despite my best efforts to forget it.
Ginger Lazarus' Arrhythmia brings us back to earth, with a pillow-talk scene between a fussy doctor (Joe Siriani) and his long-suffering mistress (Kearney). The woman tries to talk about the mysteries of the heart, both as a source of life and as a metaphor for love; the doctor keeps squelching her efforts with clinical descriptions of the organ in question. There's food for thought here, along with some enjoyably silly moments -- such as when the doctor asks, "You want me to tell my wife about you? That would just make her suspicious." But Siriani's character is a bit cartoonish, making you wonder how any woman could put up with him.
The final play before intermission, Joe Byers' The Piney Boy, is about a young couple (Chew, Roth) whose car has hit and killed a wandering child in the woods. For most of the play, I viewed the characters as ordinary people caught in a life-changing situation. Roth is particularly good as the woman whose moral compass seems to fly apart after she considers all the repercussions of her brief disregard for the speed limit. ("I thought I knew you," her boyfriend says in response to her cold-hearted solution. "You know me now," she corrects him.) But toward the end of the play, Roth's character matter-of-factly drops a few statements that are so hateful, I concluded she was an awful person before the accident -- which made me lose all interest in her plight.
The last and longest piece of the evening is Dean O'Donnell's Legwork, which gives us the dirt on unethical bill collectors. Walter McMillan (Siriani) uses blackmail and even threats of violence to get deadbeats to pay up, and he proudly shares his tricks with a young trainee (Pearlman). Shortly after setting up this scene, O'Donnell offers a series of elaborate plot twists in the tradition of Sleuth. However, the two characters were not compelling enough to make me to care which one had the upper hand at any given moment. Director Greg Smucker, who keeps the rest of the evening moving along smoothly, seems to have run out of rehearsal time before getting Legwork on its feet, and there were quite a few muffed lines on opening night. "The Boston Plays" ends with an unintentional reminder that shorter can be better.
© 2000 Boston Phoenix