Baseball and television lead to larger issues in Playwrights Festival


The subject of popular entertainment is the common thread connecting the pair of one-act plays being presented at the Spot-lighters Theatre as the final entry in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Joe Dennison's "Chin Music" is about baseball, and Joe Thompson's "Saturday Morning Television" is about, well, television. And both are involving, in part because they depict the dangers of excess.

"Chin Music" -- baseball slang for a ball thrown at the batter's head -- takes place on April 1, 1995, the day before the end of the eight-month baseball strike.

A fed-up fan, nicknamed "Bake" and portrayed with angry

determination by Bruce A. Ruth, has kidnapped the star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, Cliff "The Whiff" Babcock, played by lanky Richardson Jones as a scared, irritated and misunderstood kid.

This scenario might strike die-hard fans as a comedy, or perhaps wish-fulfillment, but that's not the way Dennison has written it (not that a few laughs might not leaven the tension). Instead, he's come up with something closer to the Major League equivalent of "Extremities," a play the script alludes to, about a rape victim who holds her attacker hostage.

Mostly, "Chin Music" turns out to be about fathers and sons. Bake is unable to come to terms with his young son's death,

caused by a freak accident on the day they were to attend the canceled All-Star Game. And Cliff, who is diabetic, has a deep-seated hatred of the father who pushed him to grow up athletic, not sickly.

Dennison, a Playwrights Festival veteran who has a good sense of theatricality, adds an element of surrealism to the action by showing us a ballpark vendor in one corner and Bake's son tossing a ball in another. These imaginary characters interact TC with Bake and Cliff, especially in the end, when this anguished, working-class fan and overpaid ballplayer discover they have more in common than a game.

"Saturday Morning Television" is a comedy, but it also has a surrealistic aspect, emphasized with sitcom cheeriness by director Devon Osborne, who staged both one-acts. An average American husband and wife -- named, naturally enough, Mr. and Mrs. Doe (Dan Bursi and Joan Corcoran) -- wake up one Saturday to discover their home has been invaded by a television crew shooting a "slice-of-life" documentary.

As if this isn't enough of an imposition, the Does don't seem sufficiently "real" to the television director and his assistant, whose experience is primarily in soap operas. First the assistant director replaces the Does' breakfast eggs with a sedative-laced cereal, then he replaces irritable Mrs. Doe with a leggy actress (Michelle Merrick). Dismayed to learn the couple is childless, he brings in two child actors (Curtis Dalsimer and Jane Bloom).

Soon the Does are trapped in what appears to be their own episode of "Married with Children." By the time the play is over, this laugh-track-laden sitcom seems more like "The Twilight Zone."

If "Saturday Morning Television" blurs reality and television, the Spotlighters' opening night performance carried this one step further, blurring reality and theater when illness forced the last-minute replacement of two cast members. Thompson, the playwright, stepped into the substantial role of the TV show's assistant director, and Merrick -- who was to have served as lighting and sound technician -- took over the role of the actress wife.

Both replacements had acting experience and fared fine (granted, the playwright referred to a script attached to a clipboard, but it was a perfectly acceptable prop for his character). Initially, this situation probably seemed catastrophic to the company. For the audience, however, it was a testament to the spirit of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and a rare opportunity to witness the show-must-go-on spirit that separates live theater from celluloid.

One-act plays

What: "Saturday Morning Television" and "Chin Music"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through Aug. 24

Tickets: $10

$ Call: (410) 752-1225

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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