Playwrights and novelists often claim that their characters "write themselves" - that they take on lives of their own.
That's the premise in Joe Dennison's Air/Ice, a Baltimore Playwrights Festival production at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.
The play opens with a highly charged scene - athletically directed by Barry Feinstein - of two men locked in hand-to-hand combat. One of the men is Cooper Wells, a terminally ill, wildly successful pulp fiction writer. The other is Dick Dragon, the fictional superhero of Wells' 22 spy novels.
It's a lively opening, but Dennison's play never manages to live up to its promise. Part of the problem is that the antagonistic relationship between Tom Blair's gruff, blustering Coop and Keith Snipes' smooth Dragon rings truer than the supposedly long-term loving bond between Coop and his wife, Fiona.
Margaret Swanson's British Fiona comes across as an icy creature, indeed. Responsible for marketing Coop's books, she's a woman whose mercenary instincts seem stronger than her concern for her husband's happiness or creative fulfillment.
Fiona reacts with outrage after Coop tells her that he has killed off Dick Dragon and written a book of literary short stories. Coop may call her his "muse," but when he insists he wants to be taken seriously as a writer, Fiona - far from being supportive - acts like the most money-grubbing of agents.
The playwright's unflattering portrait makes it seem as if all Fiona sees in Coop is a burgeoning bankroll. What he sees in her is more difficult to fathom. The couple's verbal sparring - much of it repetitive - makes up much of the first act. After intermission, we do see some genuine tenderness between husband and wife. Furthermore, Dick Dragon's scenes get even more clever as the play progresses, culminating in a delightfully ironic twist at the end.
But just as Coop physically wrestles with his prose creation, Dennison is all too obviously wrestling with this script. And, inspired as Dick Dragon's appearances may be, he's not enough of a superhero to turn Air/Ice into the theatrical equivalent of a page turner.
Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1. Tickets are $12. Call 410-276-7837.
For his first full season as producing director of Washington's Ford's Theatre, Paul R. Tetreault has chosen a lineup that focuses on Americana, a fitting approach for this historic theater. The series features such classic American writers as Mark Twain and Thornton Wilder, as well as an impressive roster of directors.
Here's a look at the 2004-2005 offerings:
The Matchmaker, by Thornton Wilder, Sept. 24-Oct. 24. Tony Award-winner Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding and SCTV) will play the title character in this 50th anniversary staging of the comedy that was adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly! Direction will be by Mark Lamos, most recently represented in Washington by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Kennedy Center and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Theatre.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, Nov. 23-Jan. 2. Dickens' classic is the sole European offering in the season, but the perennial holiday show will be given a new spin in the hands of American theater artists. Focusing on the ghosts who haunt Scrooge, Michael Wilson's revised adaptation will be directed by Matt August with a new musical score by frequent Center Stage collaborator Mark Bennett.
Mark Russell: Comedy, Music, Bribery & Conspiracy, Jan. 18-23. Timed to coincide with the presidential inauguration, political satirist Russell returns to Ford's, where he has held forth for two decades.
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, Feb. 4-27. Marshall W. Mason will direct this coming-of-age story about an adolescent girl in the South and her family's African-American housekeeper.
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, adapted by William Hauptman from Mark Twain's novel, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller, March 18-May 1. The Broadway production by Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre received two 2004 Tony nominations, including one for best musical revival. Jeff Calhoun directs a touring cast made up of hearing-impaired and hearing actors.
Instead of traditional subscriptions, Ford's is instituting a $50 flexible membership program, Friends of Ford's Theatre, which offers advance ticket purchases and discounts for certain performances. Single tickets range from $25-$48. For more information call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org.
When Washington's Kennedy Center announced its forthcoming season, the first offering, Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll, was going to be performed as a staged reading. Now the story of husband and wife senior citizens has grown into a full production.
On Golden Pond will be presented in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater Sept. 28-Oct. 17. Tickets are $25-$78. Call 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.