part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Is the American dream for sale? If you attend the theatre regularly, you probably already know most playwrights’ answer to that question. And you certainly know the point of view of Gated, Marisa Marquez’s professional but predictable take on the theme, currently playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Set in Las Peñas Hills, an exclusive resort-like (and Levittown-like) condo community in Northern California, it posits that the more people from all walks of life try to be normal, the more difficulty they’ll have achieving that goal. But capable direction (by Danny Williams) and fine acting by the seven-person company (which includes Marquez herself) aren’t quite enough to make this the potent evisceration of misguided ideals it’s trying to be.
Marquez attempts to show the breadth of differing, and equally deluded, perspectives of America by touring the Las Peñas complex. In one home, a man trades off his mentally ill Indian wife as part of a business arrangement he’s sure her traditional parents would approve. In another, one mother accuses another of child neglect and abuse, which leads to a heated discussion about the interplay of class, divorce, and race in the world of barely-middle-class women. One couple is being driven apart by the husband’s erectile dysfunction, another by his infidelity with his realtor, still another by their suicidal daughter. An American-born Filipino girl wants to join the military against the wishes of her father; an adolescent boy and his college-age babysitter bond over questions of discrimination, romance, and of course sex.
But each of these stories stops considerably short of being provocative, and most cover territory that’s been too well picked over to yield many new insights. The few times you’re engaged, it’s because of the actors: the way Marquez’s upper lip just barely trembles as she tunes out her father’s attempt at consolation on her iPod, Chris Kloko’s stolid sense of defeat as he comes to the terrifying realization that the marriage he’s been cheating on may somehow work out after all, the constant flipping between ages and ethnic groups that Austin Mitchell does so effortlessly.
The performers’ individuality is also what ultimately sinks Gated: The play is trying to prove how tract housing stifles the spirit and distinctiveness of those who live within it, but the inhabitants of Las Peñas all come across as far more original and memorable than the real estate they’ve been asked to occupy.
Sometimes (okay, maybe most of the time) what happens in college should stay in college. Ben Ferber and Donald McEwan’s sketch anthology originated at Ohio’s Oberlin College as a series of entries in various student theatre competitions, and has now arrived at MITF under a title that announces how far from its roots it hasn’t strayed: The Dickening. If that doesn’t get you laughing, chances are the six vignettes it comprises, which are all (very) loosely related and semi-organized under Ferber’s direction, won’t do much better.
Distilled to one-sentence pitches, they don’t seem promise-free. “Two on-duty soldiers encounter a ball that turns them both gay!” “Two office drones can’t figure out what their job is!” “The most boring professor ever gets mistaken for two of the most exciting men alive!” “A patent lawyer is embroiled in a serial-killing spree at 1:00 AM!” (Okay, so that last one is borderline.) But without some combination of laser-honed staging, bullseye-hitting performances, a firm social context (such as a university theatre department), or the vaguest hint of improvisational or whimsical innocence, such one-dimensional ideas — none of which are developed in the traditional dramatic sense — will never result in real laughter.
That’s exactly the fate that befalls it here, with painstakingly earnest self-satisfaction replacing what should be straightforward, if perhaps off-kilter, honesty. The members of the young-looking five-person company (augmented by Ferber and McEwan in brief cameo appearances) do try, though they all try too hard, and because most of them probably have grander acting ambitions, I won’t permanently tie them to this show by naming them here.
I will, however, point out perhaps this enterprise’s most interesting and telling feature: its genesis as a Kickstarter.com-funded project. Its page on that website contains video clips of these scenes as performed Oberlin, and those actors, more open and accepting of the plays’ absurd points of view on everything from stalking to sex to work life, come much closer to being funny with this same material. “Sophomoric” may often be used pejoratively, but sometimes it’s the right tone for a theatre piece. The Dickening might have been better off staying in school.