Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Tom Donaghy's Provocative Drama
Also see Richard's recent review of Visions of Kerouac
The Actors Theatre of San Francisco recently presented Tom Donaghy's Off Broadway hit The Beginning of August. The play had its world premiere at the South Coast Repertory Company in '99-'00 season. August played at the Atlantic Theatre in New York in October 2000 to mixed reviews. The playwright's roguish dialogue has endeared him to many prestigious regional theaters since that time. The Playbill bio of Tom Donaghy says of the popularity of his dialogue: "The reasoning appears to be that since people don't talk anything like this in life, it must be art." Ben Brantley of the New York Times expressed it better as "a dramatist of inventive eloquence, finding poetry of longing in the empty mantras and sound bites of contemporary pop culture." Empty mantras are prevalent in this drama, and I noted quite a few sound bites.
The Beginning of August can be described as a play about a baby, but it has no resemblance to the Edward Albee play. The dialogue is more Mamet than Albee and the actors rarely speak more then two sentences at a time with the exception of the affected phrases.
The drama has love-deprived characters led by fussy husband Jackie (Christian Phillips). Jackie has success at hand; he's got a good job, a nice home in suburbia and his wife has recently given birth to a beautiful and very quiet baby girl. What more could an average guy asked for? Unfortunately, Jackie's wife Pam (Eleese Longino) disappears one day without warning, leaving Jackie and their baby to fend for themselves. Now he has to make up his mind whether to wait for his wife to return or start a new life without her. Jackie is a businessman with a full time day job and expects Joyce (Susi Damilano), his stepmother and widow of his recently deceased father, to become a permanent babysitter while he's at work. Jackie has a whole list of do's and don't's when looking after the child. Many of the instructions border on the madcap, such as "Please don't make food or dust." He tells the stepmother that she is not to invite anyone over when caring for the child or use four letter words in front of the child and she shouldn't alphabetize anything. Joyce is happy to go along with these panicky instructions since she has been of no use to anyone since her husband's death.
Assorted estranged people come into the scene when Jackie is away from the house. These include Ted (Scott Agar Jaicks) the lawn man and Ben (Andrew Todhunter) the handyman. Both have selfish reasons for wanting to help care for the child which are divulged in the second act of the play. There is even a woman neighbor who we never fully see with the exception of her hands over a wooden fence handing out goodies to the lead characters. We find out that several of her children are in jail and she is one mighty lonely person. Pam reappears at the end of the first act and in the second act attempts to tell why she left the husband. Her explanations seem obscure in one of the plays most excruciating scenes.
Susi Damilano, one of our more talented actors, has a naturally engaging stage presence and gives the most appealing performance. Christian Haines, another talented actor who has appeared in many of the Actor's Theatre productions, seems lost in his role of the finicky husband. He does try for the contrived rhythms of the dialogue and finally succeeds in the second act. The rest of the small cast does what it can to find the natural timing of the artificial cadence of the dialogue.
Biz Duncan's set shows the back yard of a suburban home with a tall wooden fence running the length of the stage. There seems to be enough wood on stage to build a complete house in the burbs. Duncan also has a hand in lighting the stage with his helper Rachel Klyce. There are time changes in each act, and this is handled by some blue lights and even a few blackouts that do not help the play.
Christian Phillips does an effective job of directing the small cast with the entrances and exits timed just right. However, some of the acting in the first scenes could be livened up, but that is mostly the fault of the playwright and not the director.
The Beginning of August ran through May 24th at the theatre located at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.
Coming up next is the world premiere of Keith Phillips play Snapshots from the World Croquet Championship of 1959 which opens on June 6 thru June 28. For tickets call 415-296-9179