Five Down, One Across
The intimate space at 949 Commonwealth Avenue affords an up close and personal experience from every seat, and the members of the audience are invited to be part of the play development process by writing anonymous comments on a program insert that gets passed on to the playwright. In a way, it takes some of the pressure off the critics because it encourages everyone to have a say about their observations of the work. Of course, it also ups the ante for the members of the Fourth Estate to bring forth their sharpest perspective and sound at least as intelligent as the paying customers. However, it is all good in terms of honing and revising the play to achieve the finished product.
Towers sets the story in a comfortable Brookline home where 53-year-old Betty resides with her "roommate" Sharon. When Betty brings her 85-year-old mother Madeleine into the picture, the picture changes drastically. Although Madeleine is on the wait list for a room at Brook Haven Life Care Center, she shows no signs of wanting to move on and plays the dementia card to guilt Betty into allowing her to stay. Her days are spent mumbling over crossword puzzles and listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Betty keeps more secrets from her mother than the one about her sexual preference, adding to her stress and sending Sharon's frustration level through the ceiling. When their friends Kitten and Ramona show up for the weekly Tuesday "Taco Night," more than one can of worms gets opened.
The notion that a middle-aged woman with a good profession has neither shared her academic success story, nor come out to her mother, nor admitted that she is divorced, nor even told the truth about her missing cat may be a challenging test of your suspension of disbelief. Somehow, Towers makes most of those facets of the story credible, or at least provides sufficient background on the mother-daughter relationship to attempt to justify the circumstances. Clearly, Betty has her own issues with self-esteem and her sexuality, not to mention that she is a recovering Catholic. Less comprehensible is why her relationship with Sharon is so tenuous after eight years, what she values about her friendship with their dinner companions, and why her seventeen-year-old son is mostly an afterthought in her life.
As the beleaguered Betty, Chloe Leamon runs the gamut of emotions as she faces off against her mother and tries to placate her partner, all the while trying to keep her own head above water. Leamon portrays frustration and fear more convincingly than love and affection, but her overall performance as the central character is strong. Alice Duffy is a formidable force to be reckoned with in the role of Madeleine and deserves a lot of attention, even though she spends some time offstage. Stephanie Clayman does what she can with Sharon, but the part is underwritten. Most of her scenes require her to be angry at Betty or Madeleine, and other times she sits as a silent observer. Ellen Peterson has the broadest role and seems to be having a lot of fun with the part of Kitten. She uses her physicality and big smile to tell us about this woman as she struts around the stage, not a shy bone in her body. Jessica Webb's Ramona is more demure and sensitive. Betty's son Christopher is played sensitively by BU senior Ross Neuenfeldt.
During a post-show talkback, the playwright discussed some of the revisions he had already made, including elimination of two characters to get down to the current six. I think that the number of characters works, but Towers needs to go deeper in developing Sharon, Kitten and Ramona, as well as filling in more about the partner relationships of both couples. Little of the attraction between Betty and Sharon is shown or felt. At least Kitten and Ramona have some disagreements and share some public displays of affection that feel genuine, but they're kind of an odd pairing. I suspect that Towers had a checklist of lesbian types that he wanted to include in his story: one very "out" butch typecheck; one earthy-crunchy femmecheck; one self-loathing, closet casecheck, but he leaves the actresses little room to expand their portrayals of these narrowly-defined women.
A second difficulty for the actresses lies in the structure of Towers' dialogue. There are numerous occasions where conversations overlap; as Kitten and Ramona argue in one corner of the dining room, Betty and Sharon differ in another, or Betty and Madeleine snipe at each other in the living room. Not only is it difficult for the audience to grasp what is going on in both places simultaneously (like watching a television newscast and trying to read the scroll on the bottom of your screen), but the timing felt forced on opening night as each dyad seemed to be waiting for the other to finish speaking before reciting their lines. Presumably the timing will improve, but the requirement that the audience split their attention will remain problematic.
As a work in progress, Five Down, One Across has much to offer, with snappy writing, diverse characters, and more than enough conflict to be resolved before the curtain falls. The direction and the design elements are solid. I'd like to see a little less conflict and a little more character development, and then I'd like to see the next revision. At Boston Playwrights' Theatre, that just might happen.
Five Down, One Across, performances through October 24 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston University, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
Written by Michael Towers; Directed by Sidney Friedman; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Set Designer, Anthony Phelps; Lighting Designer, Uel Bergey; Costume Designer, Amelia Gossett; Sound Designer, Ryan Anderson
Cast: Stephanie Clayman, Alice Duffy, Chloe Leamon, Ross Neuenfeldt, Ellen Peterson, Jessica Webb