[Sidebar] May 10 - 17, 2001
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Tainted love

Another batch of Strange Romances

by Bill Rodriguez

MORE STRANGE ROMANCES. Directed by Tom Hunter and Vera Wayne. With Kit Wallach, J.R. Sullivan, Bruce Church, Rue Siegel, Bernice Bronson, Mike Kiernan, Paolo Reichlin, Halley Lavenstein, Nicole DeRosa. Presented by New England Repertory Company at the Bell Street Chapel, Providence, through May 12.

J.R. Sullivan and Nicole DeRosa in 'Birdbath'

More Strange Romances, a trio of short one-act plays by New England Repertory Company, is a mixed bag -- some sharp observations, some skillful acting challenges, some melodramatic excess. This year's offering isn't as safe as last summer's Saroyan and Guare, but the risk-taking does come up with some worthwhile and thought-provoking moments. Romantic comedies these are not.

The opener is Some Kind of Certainty, by Jonathan Vogels, directed by Vera Wayne. The married couple and two other characters are connected by death, either past or pending. Reed (J.R. Sullivan) is a young transplant surgeon -- "the ultimate recycler," in his flippant words. College student Samantha (Kit Wallach) is struggling with the uncertainties of the universe yet is comforted by the order of Latin grammar and art. And Lionel (Bruce Church) and Mona (Rue Siegel) are agonizing over the fate of their 28-year-old son, who has been stricken by an incurable


The movement in this 10-minute play is more in our understanding than in theirs. Samantha, we find, is still staggering from the loss of her twin sister in a traffic accident, coping with her mother's double-vision view of her as "a presence and a void at the same time." Doctor Reed is in reluctant awe of his everyday life-and-death witnessing and responsibility. "Who could put the heart of a baboon into the chest of a man and not be changed?" he asks. The inner life of Lionel and Mona becomes clearer subtly. As she paints a landscape, her husband asks idly why she doesn't include tiny figures, like the Hudson River School painters? Because, she says, she wants it "to be more permanent." This succinct little play builds its effect by accretion rather than plot.

Equally short, St. Joseph Stands On His Head was written and directed by Tom Hunter, the company' artistic director. Wheelchair-bound May (Bernice Bronson) is looking out her front window, describing the muscle-rippling young man (Paolo Reichlin) doing yard work across the street to her husband Charlie (Mike Kiernan). He is pulling weeds with the patience of a lover as she observes with a squeal of delight. The couple is elderly, and the dialogue is humorous, especially since Charlie has trouble seeing, so May's descriptions have to be larger than life. Soon we enter the hallucination of one or both of the couple, as the mower man shows up at the door and a young May (Halley Lavenstein) dances with the effortless grace of fond memory.

The strangest romance is saved for last. The resolution of New York playwright Leonard Malfi's 1968 Birdbath is flinchingly melodramatic, the sort of over-the-top pathos that only Grand Opera can still get away with. Nevertheless, Nicole DeRosa rivets our attention with the psychological ferment bubbling beneath the surface of Velma Sparrow, a waitress in a cheap restaurant. We wonder whether she's more Tennessee Williams's reclusive Amanda or Stephen King's ticking time-bomb Carrie. Under Hunter's direction, DeRosa keeps both possibilities alive for us.

This one is as long as the other two playlets combined, but it contains enough unfolding of the two complex main characters to not overstay its welcome. We see Velma cleaning up a diner late one night after work, with the quiet new cashier, Frankie Basta (Sullivan), making her even more nervous than usual. While Frankie tallies receipts, Velma recounts her stunningly pathetic life. Father ran off 20 years ago, when she was six. The only man she ever got to know well was her movie-star-handsome brother. Her mother has convinced her she's homely and unmarriageable, and she has her working two jobs.

The taciturn Frankie seems, in her words, "high class," and at first it seems preposterous that he would take an interest in her. Though the story falls apart at the end, Sullivan keeps the easily angered Frankie humane enough to want to revert to gentleness. When they get to Frankie's apartment after midnight, with him slugging gin and Velma as skittish as a filly in a stud paddock, the tension could power the stage lighting. Eventually, Frankie reveals that he writes poetry like a junior high school girl, and Velma shows that her twitchy behavior has been hiding more than resentment at mommy.

New England Repertory Company was formed five years ago in Massachusetts by Hunter, an actor with film and TV credits. DeRosa is the only returnee from last summer's enjoyable evening of short plays at the Bell Street Chapel. Finding decent actors isn't a problem around here these days, and there has never been a dearth of good plays in the English-speaking world. Let's hope that this occasional theater company finds more of both the next time around.

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