Red herrings

Leo Oscar's Backyard

By Leslie Bramm
Directed by Pamela S. Butler
Three Crows Theatre
Present Co. Theatorium
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

A casual search of the Web reveals that there is a theory to the effect that Lee Harvey Oswald was really two people: the American Lee Oswald and the Russian Harvey Oswald. This sort of ambivalence about identity underlies Leo Oscar's Backyard, which brushes up obliquely against Oswald (and numerous other topics).

Leon Edward Oscar (Leo for short) and his wife Rina (Marina?), a Russian, are being visited in New Orleans by two of Rina's penpals, Norma Jean and George (from All About Eve? once you start, it never ends...), two Texans who, it turns out, belong to a swingers' club. Rina (Hadas Gil-Bar) invited them because she doesn't understand English very well and thought they were visiting for some harmless "fun"; Leo smells a rat after the Texans drive 500 miles to meet these two casual acquaintances. Leo (Christopher Yeatts), in addition to his obsession with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, fantasizes about being a singing-cowboy musical star, just as Rina fantasizes about being Grace Kelly.

The play starts and ends with an Interviewer (George G. Colucci) talking to Leo on TV. A sardonic interlocutor (Bart Mallard, mysteriously billed as The TV and Man) makes biting comments to Leo, often disparaging Rina. But the bulk of the play takes place in Leo and Rina's backyard, as George (Reggie Barton) and Norma Jean (Kymberly Harris Riggs) try to get Leo and Rina into the sack, while they wait for Leo's TV appearance (and for the passionate but ineffectual Leo to fix the TV). The seduction is a disaster, as Rina gets drunk and Leo hits her for being a slut ("Thank God Norma Jean can take a punch," says the earthy George). The TV appearance, too, is a disaster, as the Interviewer ridicules Leo, who thought he was going on to talk about politics but ends up a laughingstock.

The framing sequences were crisp and taut (Colucci, as the Interviewer, could have been on CNN; Mallard's sneering went as close as possible to the top without going over it). Yeatts, a fine and passionate actor, looked ready to step into Woyzeck at the drop of a ten-gallon hat. Gil-Bar was remarkable as Rina, dependent and submissive but ultimately rebellious; she gave intense focus to Yeatts in all his ravings. Barton and Riggs were believable as the aging swingers George and Norma Jean, though their performances ran afoul of the material as it went deeper into the literal world of swinging; the play points up a lesson taught by striptease: the tease is more effective than the strip. Their part of the play swings dangerously close to the depressingly obscene as it veers away from mere suggestion.

Ward Robesson carefully thought out every detail of the costumes, from footwear on up. The set, comprising flimsy-looking set pieces surrounded on all sides by black drapes, schematically defined the backyard. The lighting (Flip Oninov) carefully underscored transitions between different realities and areas but could have used greater variety of moods than the blue and white gels used. Butler's direction maintained a brisk pace that ably held up the sometimes sagging script and brought liveliness and tension, partly through subtle movements, to argument that could otherwise have come across as static.

This is a provocative play that suggests more than it states and reaches farther than its grasp. Bramm's work will be worth watching for in future. He should lock up his company in a trailer and take them with him wherever else he goes.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2001 John Chatterton