Savage love

Cooper Savage

By Bash Halow
Directed by Blake Lawrence
Emerging Artist Theatre
West End Theatre
The Church SPSA
263 West 86th Street (between Broadway and West End Avenues) (866-468-7619)
Equity showcase (closes July 6)
Review by Doug DeVita

There are moments of such passionate writing in Bash Halow's Cooper Savage that it became tempting to overlook its problems with structure, clarity, and tone. Writing in a very cinematic style, Halow packs a huge story into one swiftly moving act: Cooper is a rather sour, late-middle-aged Virginian haunted by the memories of a traumatic event buried deep in her past, stuck in a loveless marriage of convenience to the vocal but unseen Lou Savage, saddled with caring for her not-quite-senile 97-year-old mother, and trying to deal with Jeffrey, her college-age son who is coming to terms with his sexuality. Thrown into the mix are Tracy, an unmarried, very pregnant housekeeper; Theresa, a sexually predatory classmate of Jeffrey's; and Randy, the seductive drifter Cooper rents a room to. When Randy begins to display the same traits as John, the man who wronged Cooper in her youth, a fierce battle of personalities begins to rage, a battle in which there will be no emerging victors, only unwittingly willing victims.

All this is meant to be a darkly comic, neo-gothic tale of the destructive power of secrets and seduction that builds slowly but inexorably to a shattering conclusion. And on many levels it succeeds, particularly in those emotionally wrenching final moments when Jeffrey's wishes, Randy's libido, and Cooper's memories finally clash with horrific finality. But that shocking payoff hasn't really been earned - despite the frequently superb quality of the writing and performing - because Halow hasn't provided enough of the pertinent information in a clear, logical manner. Everything appears to have been written for dazzling effect, an impression that was supported by Blake Lawrence's lavishly appointed but analytically fuzzy production. Cooper's memories, indeed Cooper herself, seem to have taken a back seat to individual character's eccentricities. Flashbacks to the events of Cooper's past were used liberally, but without any clear warning when they are coming or going (a situation exacerbated by Jeff Branson's playing both Randy and John with little differentiation; ditto an otherwise fine Susan Finch as Cooper) and subsequently situations that were rife with possibilities fell short of the goal by becoming pre-occupied with over-detailed local color in lieu of precise backward-looking and forward-propelling storytelling.

Lawrence did get terrific performances from her cast (particularly the much younger Rebecca Hoodwin's marvelously detailed 97-year-old mother and Luis Villabon's delicately tender portrayal of Jeffrey), and she kept the action percolating at a breathtaking pace. As mentioned, the production, given its premiere staging here (after being a runner-up in last year's Kennedy Center New Play Competition) and polished as it was to such a highly professional sheen, was beautiful to behold. Sandra Goldmark's brilliantly conceived and executed all wood set was complemented by Daniel Ordower's precisely portentous chiaroscuro lighting effects and Rachel Lee Harris's appropriately Wal Mart-shopper costuming. The original score (Andy Cohen) also went a long way in providing the unsettling atmosphere indicated by Halow's promising, but as yet unfulfilled premise.

(Also featuring: Amy Bizjak and Shay Gines.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita