What's up with talking teddy bears? The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is currently offering the second chatty-teddy play to open in this area in a month.
The first was Snoo Wilson's biographical account of mathematician Alan Turing, Lovesong of the Electric Bear, which ended its run at Olney Theatre Center this past weekend. The latest is Mark Scharf's Get Stuffed, half of a double bill of Baltimore Playwrights Festival one-acts at the Spotlighters.
Scharf frequently writes about relationship problems, and in Get Stuffed, the protagonist's problem is that his closest relationship is with a teddy bear he was given for his 7th birthday. Named Furball, the bear is portrayed by Mark Squirek, dressed not in a furry bear suit, but in jeans, a knit vest and running shoes. We're told that Furball is cute, but frankly, Squirek's glassy-eyed stare and perpetual goofy grin are pretty creepy.
And, though we never learn the color of Furball's fur, the words that come gushing out of his mouth are definitely blue. This is one back-talking, sassy teddy. Furball insists he always tells the truth to Marty (Maboud "E" Ebrahimzadeh), his owner. But the bear's truth is basically a blatant, bullying effort at self-preservation.
Furball has reason to worry. First, Marty brings home a date (Taisha Cameron) and shoves Furball in the closet. Then Marty's mother (Susan S. Porter) pays a surprise visit and threatens to toss the bear in the Dumpster.
Mom complains that Marty's father never talks; Marty, on the other hand, is saddled with a stuffed animal that's difficult to shut up. When the bear does give Marty the silent treatment, Marty pleads and cajoles until he relents.
Squirek's idiosyncratic turn as Furball falls into the car-crash category - you can't take your eyes off him. Just watch his facial expression when mother and son get into a tug-of-war with each pulling one of Furball's arms; the actor looks as if his features are about to be torn apart. C. Dan Bursi's static direction, however, strands Squirek on a sofa in one corner of the Spotlighters' in-the-round stage, obstructing the view of patrons seated behind him.
A more serious problem is that the play itself is static and thin. At the beginning, Marty is a loser who talks to his teddy bear. At the end, Marty has made a modicum of progress in dealing with people, but he's still a loser who talks to his teddy bear.
Playwright Rosemary Frisino Toohey pulls off a more challenging feat in the Spotlighters' second one-act, Cornered. To show the impact of a debilitating disease on a marriage, Toohey builds her script around a multiple sclerosis patient who is a former fencer.
The playwright then gives the character - a wife and mother named Laura (Porter) - a series of monologues in which, with her health and vigor restored, she demonstrates and explains her love of the sport.
Fencing is a smart choice, not only because of the physical agility it requires, but also because, as the disease progresses, Laura and her husband Stephen (Squirek) become verbal duelists, with Laura constantly putting Stephen on the defensive.
Porter's Laura is bitter and sarcastic, while Squirek's Stephen is almost too long-suffering to be true. He tells Laura they're in this together; she insists that's impossible. Far from letting him feel her pain, Laura pushes him away.
Several scenes repeat the pattern of Stephen coming home, opening the mail and starting supper, but the chronology of the scenes jumps around, as if we are reliving Laura's out-of-sequence memories.
What's most intriguing about Cornered is the way it defies preconceptions. First, Toohey paints Laura as an unsympathetic character. Then she turns the tables by suggesting that Laura's behavior is rooted in her love for her husband - love so deep, she'll try almost anything to force him to get on with his life.
Squirek and Porter give intense performances, and in this case, even though Porter spends most of the play in a wheelchair, director Bursi keeps the movement fluid enough to ensure good sightlines all around.
Laura says her children could never understand her point of view. That's partly what the play is about - that no one who isn't sitting in her chair ever can. It's also about the notion that when all other sources of passion are denied, verbal skirmishes may become a sign of affection - especially for two highly articulate people like these.
Mostly, though, Cornered is about the fact that love, like life, can thrust and parry in unexpected directions. And victory isn't always a joyous affair.
Showtimes at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 27. Tickets are $12. Call 410-752-1225.