If God is in the details, then the devil was having a field day at the Impact Theatre's double bill of The Hero, a new playlet by Stuart Benedict, and Jean Anouilh's bittersweet one-act comedy The Orchestra. Both were directed by Ted Mornel with a lack of focus so extensive that the effect was akin to watching a train wreck: a feeling of helpless fascination co-existing with a growing horror at the calamity that is inevitable but impossible to prevent.
Set in an American Army outpost somewhere in the war-torn France of 1944, Benedict's The Hero follows the exploits of an ever-expanding group of army types as they each jockey for a piece of the action when a young private single-handedly captures a platoon of German soldiers. At a forced twenty minutes, it plays more like an episode from the classic '50s sit-com You'll Never Get Rich (aka Sgt. Bilko). But instead of building to a riotous, over-the-top climax as the characters scramble for reflected honor and glory, the poorly paced scenes just piled one on top of the other, eventually screeching to a halt in a loud, jumbled heap of confused blocking, bad timing, and self-conscious shouting.
Worse yet was Anouilh's whimsical The Orchestra. Dispassionately dissecting the raging personality conflicts and sexual frustrations in a third-rate, almost-all-girl orchestra in post-WWII France, Anouilh's delicate allegory was jack-hammered into a frantic farce notable mainly for Mornel's total mishandling of the material. As the performers raced cluelessly around the stage, dropping and stepping on each other's lines with a regularity that grew alarming, it became obvious that there was no real understanding of the text by either the director or his cast, every line delivered at face value without evident thought to its inherent subtext. In addition, the mimed orchestral playing, with the performers making little if any connection to the (taped) music or each other as musicians, was ludicrous in both its concept and presentation.
In The Hero, Skip Murphy was gloriously goofy as the hapless title character, and Timothy M. Douglas gave a smooth, energetic polish to an opportunistic Major. Arno Austin, at top volume as a sergeant, made an interesting if unintelligible choice to use both consonants and vowels in his speech without linking them together. In The Orchestra the cast, with one exception, seemed under-rehearsed and tired, contributing perfunctory, charmless performances. The one exception was Jean Streit, whose boundless energy as the overheated orchestra leader brought some life to the proceedings, even if her interpretation was so far off the mark as to be unintentionally hilarious.
The production was totally black-box, with no designers credited. Set pieces were limited to a beat-up desk in The Hero that doubled as a beat-up spinet in The Orchestra. Costumes for each were simple and to the point, and the lighting was nearly non-existent. The sound was atrocious, particularly when the musical selections "played" by the "orchestra" ended with an abrupt click in mid-musical phrase.
As productions become smarter and more sophisticated at breaking and yet staying within the limitations of Off-Off Broadway, to present work with such a haphazard, amateurish approach does a disservice to the authors, the performers, and the Off-Off Broadway arena in general. Wake up. It's reveille!
(Also featuring Sam Ferrel, Vince Kline, Ron
Leir, Amy Groeschel, Molly Mulholland, Lori
Rohr, Debra Ruiz, Andrea Vadala.)
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita