Steve Tesich's "On the Open Road" sits somewhere on the road between "Waiting for Godot" and "Mother Courage and Her Children."
Its two main characters, a cultured gentleman named Al and an (( ex-boxer named Angel, are reminiscent of rich Pozzo and his servant, Lucky, in the Beckett play. And the cart of war spoils they're pulling could easily be the one pulled by Mother Courage in the Brecht play.
Furthermore, the opening image in the Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore's production looks as bleak as anything in Beckett or Brecht. When we enter the theater, Lance Irwin's Angel is already on stage -- standing on an oil drum, with his hands bound and a noose around his neck.
But there's a fundamental difference between the bleakness of Beckett and Brecht and this 1992 script by the Academy Award-winning author of "Breaking Away." Life may initially seem every bit as brutal and futile to Tesich's protagonists, but in the end they have learned from each other and are redeemed.
The play takes place in an unspecified country in the midst of a civil war, at an unspecified time in the future.
Angel, strung up by a lynch mob for the crime of being alive, has been abandoned after the mob went for kerosene to set him on fire and never returned. He explains this to Paul Ellis' Al, who wanders by and offers him a proposition.
Al will free him if Angel will serve as "a human ox" and pull his cart.
The meaning of freedom is the central theme in this recent work by the Yugoslavian-born playwright. To Angel, getting his head out of the noose means freedom, but Al is headed for a larger freedom -- a place called the Land of the Free.
His cart contains artworks he has looted from bombed museums and mansions. These paintings and sculptures, he assures Angel, will be the cultural ticket he needs to cross the border to his destination.
Played by Ellis as a cold elitist, Al is uncomfortable with the gratitude and friendship offered him by Irwin's Angel. To keep from having to listen to Angel's chummy prattle, Al decides to educate him.
In the second act, religion is added to Al and Angel's discussions of art, music and philosophy. The act begins with both men standing on barrels with nooses around their necks. This time, it's the hangman who has a proposition. Jesus has returned for the Second Coming, and the government wants him out of the way.
When Al and Angel toss a coin to determine who will do the deed, their action calls to mind the work of another native Eastern bloc playwright, Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." But as the play progresses, Al and Angel move beyond the cipher-like quality of Hamlet's intended assassins. Al teaches Angel how to think and Angel teaches Al how to feel. In other words, they free each other's hearts and minds.
With its over-abundance of long philosophical speeches, "On the Open Road" is a difficult play to stage. But director H. P. Albarelli Jr. and actors Ellis and Irwin do a decent job of keeping the debate lively and even finding glimmers of humor in the text. Most importantly, they build an affecting relationship between Al and Angel, a bond that rescues this talky treatise on freedom from the shackles of didacticism.
'ON THE OPEN ROAD'
Where: Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, 908 Washington Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 27
Call: (410) 727-1847