Every now and then, we all feel as if we're playing a role. But Max, the protagonist in Greg Jenkins' Marginal Man, feels that way all the time.
Half of a double bill titled Reality Check at Mobtown Players, Marginal Man - which focuses on the highly apropos subject of theater - gets this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival off to an encouraging start.
Recently fired and recently divorced, Max suspects his destiny is scripted. Robbie Heacock's Max starts out bewildered and quickly progresses to uncomfortable and stunned.
There's good reason for his confusion. One minute, he's in a bar. The next minute, the bar is carted off and replaced with a couch, and Max is being analyzed by a psychiatrist who looks just like the bartender. Tim Elliott heightens Max's befuddlement by playing the barkeep and shrink identically - infusing both with a hip, devil-may-care attitude. And who's that bossy woman (Lisa Geyer) who keeps interrupting the action - breaking right through the "fourth wall" - and telling everyone what to do?
Elements of this Pirandellian one-act play are reminiscent of the movie The Truman Show or A.R. Gurney's play The Fourth Wall (about a woman convinced that her apartment is a theatrical set with an audience looking on). But if Marginal Man is derivative, at least it stems from and expands on worthy precedents.
Under the direction of Allan Dale III, the actors take evident delight in performing this play about performing a play. And for the audience, part of the fun is that we, too, have a role in this comedy whose main character thinks he's performing in front of, well, us.
Joe Dennison's Ouch, the other half of the double bill, is less effective, in part because of a structural weakness. In the first scene, a woman named Annie (Geyer again) is visited by a stranger (Alexandra "Sandy" Isteero) carrying out the dying wishes of Annie's first love - a boyfriend she hasn't seen since high school. The third scene shows what would have happened in an alternate reality, if Annie had accepted her boyfriend's marriage proposal.
A two-scene format, abutting one scene against the other, would heighten the drama. Instead, Dennison weakens the contrast by inserting a middle scene. The play is also hampered by an excessively foolish character called Aunt Bing, an agoraphobic who harbors the delusion that she's Emma Peel from the British TV series The Avengers. Bing is presumably the engine that makes the alternate reality happen. But the character feels forced (as does Billi Dale's performance) and Geyer's rude, exaggerated exasperation with Bing only makes Annie seems more self-absorbed and less deserving of our interest or empathy.
Showtimes at Mobtown, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 26. Tickets are $15. Call 410-467-3057.
As its farewell production in the Johns Hopkins University's Merrick Barn, Theatre Hopkins also chose a play about the theater - George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family. After more than six decades, the university has reclaimed the Barn for its undergraduate theater program. In a pre-curtain speech on opening night, director Suzanne S. Pratt assured the audience that Theatre Hopkins will continue, although a permanent home has yet to be found.
The news that Theatre Hopkins will have a future is reassuring, and it would be gratifying to report that the company is leaving its home on a high note. But Pratt's production of The Royal Family is far from Theatre Hopkins' best effort.
A loosely veiled account of the Barrymore clan (here called the Cavendishes), the play comes across as creaky. And, even allowing for first-night glitches, the pacing is too slow - especially for a comedy about a family whose eccentricities and inbred theatrics should, at times, create a farce-like antic energy.
The cast includes a number of Theatre Hopkins' stalwarts, and Cherie Weinert, Molly Moores and Harry B. Turner bring brio to their portrayals of mother, daughter and profligate uncle. But Michael O'Connell is miscast as the family's slick, street-smart manager, and Michael Styer hasn't yet captured the sense of lost elan needed for his portrayal of a washed-up senior Cavendish.
Bill Roche's beautifully designed drawing room set, however, is one of the most stunning ever seen at this theater. And in light of all the attention paid to Michael Jackson recently, the play's depiction of celebrity, scandals and media circuses is unexpectedly topical.
In the second act, Nona Porter's character of matriarch Fanny Cavendish tells her granddaughter, "[Acting] is everything. It's work and play and meat and drink." Theatre Hopkins' cast probably feels that way, too, which makes it all the more regrettable that the urgency and intensity is largely missing from this valedictory production.
Showtimes in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through July 3. Tickets are $15. Call 410-516-7159.
First Look event
Center Stage's First Look series will present a reading of Something You Did, by Willy Holtzman, in the sixth-floor rehearsal hall at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St., at 7 p.m. June 28. Inspired by the 2003 parole of radical activist Kathy Boudin, the fictionalized drama focuses on the protagonist's efforts to be paroled after serving 30 years for a bombing in which a policeman was killed. Irene Lewis will direct the reading of this commissioned script. Tickets are $10. Call 410-986-4017 or visit www.centerstage.org.