Playwright Mark Scharf has created a work as classic as its setting in his 26th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival offering, Last Night at the Owl Bar, which continues through Sunday at the Chesapeake Arts Center Studio Theatre.
Scharf, who has 40 plays under his belt, again shows his gift for creating a uniquely appropriate and welcoming environment, natural and clever dialogue and contemporary characters with familiar human frailties - companions worth spending two hours with.
Anyone with a fondness for the Owl Bar in downtown Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel will feel at home in the Brooklyn Park theater. Set designer Michelle Datz projects a photographic slide replica of the wise speakeasy owl ("the more he saw the less he spoke") who stares above the actual bar to provide authenticity. Datz also uses props lent by the Owl Bar. She artfully defines the bar space by ending the pub's floor tiles in a broken pattern immediately beyond the tables.
One disadvantage of a pub setting is that much of the action is limited to conversations at tables, which can produce a static element. However, director Randy Dalmas does what he can to provide motion through moving waiters and patrons, and keeps the action briskly paced. Dalmas has actors enter and leave through the theater and uses the front-row space for actors to address audience members and draw them into the action.
Actors converse with the audience, as might naturally happen in a pub setting. Two actors play multiple characters that include waiters, dwellers of distant locations and ghosts of vanished spouses. Together they help to tell the story of Jonathan Caldwell, a theater director whose life needs some direction.
In an opening monologue, Jonathan welcomes the audience into the cozy setting - and his life. Self-centered and needy, Jonathan is living with a friend, Max, after separating from his wife of 20 years and losing his two children in a custody battle. Actor Steve Lichtenstein's Jonathan is equally adept at delivering stand-up comedy and relating the ups and downs of his fling with Max's ex-girlfriend, Annie.
Once a month, Jonathan meets his widowed friend Rebecca (Katzi Carver) at the Owl Bar, where they mostly discuss his problems in finding a soul mate. Rebecca knows Jonathan is better than his actions would sometimes indicate. Without self-pity Carver conveys Rebecca's sadness at losing her "beshert" husband and her loneliness at her daughter's recent move out of their home.
Jonathan's other sympathetic friend, Max, who opens his home to Jonathan, is vigorously played by John Lasher, who conveys Max's inability to cope with losing Annie. So distraught is Max that he records all of Annie's old phone messages so he can continue to hear her. Lasher invests Max with vulnerability, decency and strong passion that peaks when he learns that Jonathan has slept with Annie.
Tiffany James plays Annie and other minor roles - she is listed in the program as "All-Purpose Woman." Annie struck me as one of Scharf's contemporary archetypes: a strong, sexually liberated career woman, who is perfectly played by the always in-control James.
In a her smaller roles, James reveals versatility, creating believable characters with minimal dialogue.
Listed in the program as All-Purpose Man, Mike Ware is a commanding presence in a variety of small roles. His Mayberry-esque turn provides some of the play's biggest laughs. Ware also plays a disdainful French waiter with an amusing accent as well as a sensitive portrait of Rebecca's dead husband.
For this unique Baltimore setting Scharf has created an all-purpose cast of classic human characters, seeming to have sprung full-blown to life. In a post-performance conversation I mentioned Jonathan's uncanny resemblance to a former neighbor who'd faced a similar marital disintegration, and Scharf responded that he'd hoped his play would resonate with us on such levels.
This is the kind of show that perfectly fits CAC's intimate 200-seat Studio Theatre, illustrating what a gem this underused space is. I can hardly think of a better use than in celebration of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Too often it seems we have little cultural connection with our metropolitan neighbor to the north.
Show times are at 8 tonight and tomorrow and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 for center members and $15 for nonmembers. Ticket orders 410-636-6597.