Domestic conflict drives "No Riders" and "Up on the Roof," two leisurely one-act plays being presented by Howard County Center for the Arts, which is host to the show and Director's Choice Theatre Company as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Mark Scharf's "No Riders" shapes up like a caper drama. Two drifters, C.J. and Darlene, are cleaning the parking lot of a Midwestern burger joint in exchange for a meal.
They are jobless, virtually penniless, unmarried, and Darlene is pregnant.
When Oscar, the burger joint's cocky manager, takes a shine to Darlene, it puts him on a collision course with the hotheaded C.J.
You can more or less guess what the two reluctant desperadoes will do to Oscar come nightfall.
But Scharf adds a bit of a twist by framing the play as a conflict between C.J. and his father, an unforgiving church leader who regards Darlene as trash.
C.J.'s father is a phantom in the play; he stands next to C.J., hectoring and scolding, though we understand that this is just the minister's voice in his son's head ("You're 2,000 miles away," C.J. says).
Oddly, C.J. remains the sketchiest character in the drama, partly because he is played with one-note rage by Edward Jessop Swain.
Despite the play's hour length, C.J. repeats himself a lot after the first 10 minutes, swearing over and over that he'll take care of Darlene, things will be fine when they get to Seattle, etc.
As these lines grow familiar, you find yourself wanting to know more about the father-son conflict than Scharf tells.
You also want the caper plot to move a little faster, though Rachel Myrowitz, as Darlene, puts some nice tension in her scenes - especially when she is manipulating Oscar (played with a little too much naivete by Tony Gallahan). "No Riders" is on the talky side - it's like a prelude to an action film, with a car chase and gunplay all but guaranteed after the lights go down - and neither Scharf nor director Gareth Kelly have quite turned this promising script into the pressure-cooker it could be.
Sheilah Kleiman's "Up on the Roof" meanders, too, taking an hour to work out a dispute between a grown woman and her father.
The father, an 83-year-old retiree named Benjamin, wants to keep his downtown apartment. His daughter, Frannie, wants him to move in with her, or into a place closer to her home.
It's not a conflict with a lot of dramatic intrigue, but Kleiman's characters have enough charm to get you interested.
The unlikely mediator between Benjamin and Frannie is Mollie, a nearly 13-year-old girl whose problems run deeper than Benjamin's and Frannie's.
Mollie is a precocious kid who befriends Benjamin and provides a useful perspective. It's a sweet, borderline saccharine, story.
Kleiman is in no rush to tell her tale, and director Kelly doesn't press his actors. They talk, they argue, they make up, and all in their own good time.
"Up on the Roof" is a little sluggish, and, like "No Riders," it dwells on a plot that is ultimately of secondary importance. But the characters are appealing, and the acting is reasonably good.
Stanley I. Morstein is grumpy and affectionate as Benjamin, Lauren Ciarpella is sassy but winning as Mollie, and Kathy Sladek's Frannie obviously has her heart in the right place.
The play would gain urgency, and would justify its length, if Kleiman intensified Mollie's story (a single line about blood transfusions and hair loss is asked to carry a lot of weight). As is, it's harmless, and a little too easy.
Howard County Center for the Arts and Director's Choice Theatre Company present "No Riders" by Mark Scharf and "Up on the Roof" by Sheilah Kleiman at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 23. Tickets are $10; $8 for members, students and senior citizens: 410-313-2787.