Criminal Hearts

Reviewed by Richard Green

Suppose that Mary Tyler Moore, in her 1970s sitcom, had never moved to the Twin Cities. Suppose she had stayed in Chicago and married "Mr. Wrong," instead of striking out on her own, as a modern young working gal. Throw in a decision to leave the working world and have a baby, then top it off with a husband who takes off with all of their furniture.

That's pretty much where we walk in to Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts, at Muddy Waters Theatre Company, with Patty Ulrich as the good-hearted Ata, reduced to a polite mass of neuroses. Act one is slow going, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. Act two is a vast improvement, where Ms. Ulrich and an unlikely set of cohorts gleefully take revenge on Ata's runaway husband, a slithering lawyer portrayed by Andrew Neiman. Mr. Neiman also accomplishes a breathtaking feat of double-casting, playing Robbie the dimwitted robber, paired with Kelley Ryan as a down-on-her-luck burglar. How Mr. Neiman repeatedly gets around from one side of the stage to the other, during a very fast costume change (in just a couple of short lines), is simply mind-boggling.

There are several funny lines in the show, but act one is weighed down with lots of gratuitous "Modern Problems" cluttering the dialogue. In act two the joy of retribution takes over as Bo, Robbie and Ata strike out to regain her household items. Mr. Neiman's lawyer-husband character Wib turns up to regain what he stole in the first place, and to try to push his unexpectedly resourceful wife back into submission. Finally, Ata unleashes a wonderful speech of condemnation against him and all that he stands for. It's a long time coming, but Ms. Ulrich makes the climactic moment worthwhile.

It seems "Professional Victims" have landed in St. Louis with a thump in the last fortnight, with the henpecked husband in William Nicholson's Retreat From Moscow at the Rep, as well as here in Criminal Hearts.. They put quite a burden on their scene partners, who must work twice as hard to keep the show afloat while the spineless lead characters are soaking up all the energy. The material at hand dictates that Ms. Ulrich, as Ata, must be worn down to the point of exhaustion at "lights up." I don't know how an actress, or a director, copes with that degree of anti-theatricality. But it's attained a certain caché: Charles Busch's Tale Of The Allergist's Wife is another example (which toured through the Fox about two years ago) in which the title character wanders dejectedly through act one. As soon as these central characters open their weary mouths, their show is just a turtle stuck on its back. Some shows, like Retreat, never get on their feet as a result.

Kelley Ryan is a respected local actress, but she faces the unwelcome obligation to carry act one of Criminal Hearts as "Bo," the burglar who rifles through Ata's troubled life. It may be more telling than playwright Martin had intended, but Bo can only be forced into this burdensome Q&A at gunpoint. On a more ethereal, "critical" note, I might say that her Bo has too much authenticity in discussing her life in act one. Likewise, Ata's veneer of hopefulness may be too thick to provoke our worry. In any case, Mr. Neiman, as the burglar Robbie, seems (rightly) anxious to push the show forward. His director, Cameron Ulrich, or his on-stage instincts tell him he can mellow out a bit in act two when Ms. Ulrich and Ms. Ryan (and Neiman himself, with both of his own characters) are given more to work with in the script.

A season devoted to Jane Martin's works concludes at Muddy Waters withJack And Jill in May. Criminal Hearts runs through March 6th, 2005 at the Theatre at St. John's, Kingshighway and Washington, in St. Louis. For ticket information call (314) 540-7831 or click on Next season the company is planning a slate of shows by Sam Shepard.

-- Richard T. Green

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