The 19th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival opened last weekend at three area theaters with plays set in such varied locales as war-torn Yugoslavia and an isolated fast-food restaurant in the American heartland. The quality varied, too, but each of the productions reviewed here has something to recommend it, including some particularly fine performances.
At Fell's Point Corner Theatre, Ronda Cooperstein's ambitious "Dusting Belgrade" focuses on an aging foreign correspondent named Claude who returns to Belgrade accompanied by a young photographer. Rita, the photographer, is like a daughter to Claude, and she believes they are making this trip to work on a book.
What Claude, who suffers from a heart condition, hasn't told her is that when he was on assignment in Belgrade in 1955, he fell in love with a Serbian woman who may have borne him a child. Thirty-five years ago he turned his back on the woman. Now, consumed with feelings of remorse and romance, he has returned to find his lost love.
Claude (portrayed by David Manning with a mixture of warmth and gruffness), and Marianne Angelella's excitable Rita reluctantly accept lodging in the shabby one-room apartment of a Belgrade native named Sava. An out-of-work lawyer and ex-soldier (possibly a deserter, though this is unclear) Sava is the most complex character on stage. Despite Sava's limited English, Tony Colavito has no limitations when it comes to conveying the troubled heart and mind of this conscience-stricken Serb.
Sava introduces his guests to a soldier (Christopher Graybill), whose discussions with Claude and arguments with Rita are the chief outlets for the play's political philosophy, which extols socialism and life under Tito. But "Dusting Belgrade" is more about love than war, and it investigates love in a host of forms - paternal and fraternal, as well as romantic.
Although Barry Feinstein's direction is appropriately intense, he also knows when to keep a scene slow and quiet. Cooperstein's politics are rather simplistic, and her writing suffers from an abundance of aphorisms ("Death is always the last soldier in the trench," or, "The drive for strength can be a man's greatest weakness"). But she creates palpable tension on stage and is skilled at depicting a wide range of emotions - no small achievement.
Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on July 22, the last day of the run. Tickets are $11 and $12. For more information call 410-276-7837.
At the Howard County Center for the Arts, Director's Choice Theater Company is presenting two one-act plays that deal with conflicted interpersonal relationships.
"No Riders," by festival veteran Mark Scharf, is a play that ultimately proves the adage, "Father knows best" - even when the father is a rigid authoritarian minister. Indeed, the scenes in which the stern minister (Bob Perry) haunts his grown, rebellious son, C.J. (Edward Jessop Swain), are the play's most theatrical moments. The reverend's judgments weigh so heavily on the young man that C.J. actually sees his father standing before him, even though father and son are thousands of miles apart.
The action takes place in the litter-strewn parking lot of a Midwestern burger joint. Hitchhiking across the country with his pregnant girlfriend, Darlene (in a spunky, stand-out, bad-girl performance by Rachel Myrowitz), C.J. has convinced the restaurant's manager (Tony Gallahan) to let them clean up the lot in exchange for a meal.
C.J. is determined to make a fresh start with Darlene and the baby. But Darlene, who doesn't share his work ethic, is having second thoughts.
The play's ending is fairly predictable, and the staging by Gareth Kelly - who directed both halves of the double bill - has a disturbing tendency to defy physical boundaries. Still, Scharf's play displays a number of well-crafted and well-acted passages as it demonstrates how good intentions can go dangerously awry.
True to its title, Sheilah Kleiman's "Up on the Roof" takes place on an urban rooftop, the favored hangout of Benjamin, a lonely, retired Jewish octogenarian. One night around midnight, Benjamin is accosted by a city youth he assumes to be a mugger. Instead, she turns out to be a 12-year-old girl named Mollie, who has her own reasons for seeking the solitude of the roof.
The relationship that evolves between these two outwardly tough but inwardly needy souls is touching, and the scenes between Stanley I. Morstein's grandfatherly Benjamin and Mollie (given a splendidly plucky performance by Baltimore School for the Arts student Lauren Ciarpella) are the play's best.
The action slows when Benjamin is confronted by his lawyer daughter (Kathy Sladek), who is determined to put him in a retirement home. Though a scene is hampered by slack writing and content a little too reminiscent of "I'm Not Rappaport," the pace picks up considerably when the daughter meets Mollie.
Kleiman's script still needs polish, but her final vignette is a lovely affirmation of the power of friendship to transcend generational boundaries.
Show times at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 23. Tickets are $10. For more information call 410-313-2787.
Eartha Kitt, a 2000 Tony Award nominee for her role in "The Wild Party," will play the Fairy Godmother in the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," coming to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in December.
Written for television in 1957, "Cinderella" was most recently revived on the small screen in 1997, when the Fairy Godmother was played by Whitney Houston. Like the TV revival, the stage show is expected to feature colorblind casting.
Kitt made her Broadway debut in 1945 as a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe in "Blue Holiday" and her film debut in "New Faces of 1952." On television, she played Catwoman on the 1960s ABC series, "Batman." In 1981, she was the subject of the documentary "All By Myself." For more information about "Cinderella" call the Mechanic at 410-625-4230, Ext. 630.