Drowned WASP

A Slight Ache

By Harold Pinter
Directed by Braden Matthews
CellarDoor Theater Co.
Under St. Mark's (www.smarttix.com; 212/868-4444)
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Zach Wegner, of the newly minted CellarDoor Theater Co., says that he wanted to do this play because it shows the "fears that we allow to consume us and eventually destroy us." He also played the lead, Edward, a part written for an older man -- two or three times the age of Wegner. He defends the casting choice by saying that "the decline of the American man is happening much earlier."

Defending a choice doesn't make it right, though, and the casting of two twentysomethings in the roles of the middle-aged (or older) couple in A Slight Ache grated from start to finish, and not just in the lines that specifically refer to the characters' ages.

The story concerns an old couple who own a house in the country. It is the summer solstice. A Matchseller has been standing outside their back gate for the last two months, not selling any matches -- apparently not even trying to sell them, or even trying to keep them dry in the rain. Preparatory to telling the Matchseller to get lost, Edward (Wegner) invites him in for some refreshment and a chat. The Matchseller (Robert Eigen) hasn't much conversation -- he's mute -- so Edward does all the talking, most of it reminiscences about his distant youth. He tires of the exercise, and Flora (Laura Kindred) takes over, verbally seducing the old man. Eventually Edward collapses at the Matchseller's feet, Matchseller and Edward switch, and Flora adopts the Matchseller as man of the house, giving Edward the other man's tray of matches. (That Flora's role in the switch implies a feminist message is another doubtful aspect of this production's interpretation. You don't need to be a feminist to rebel at language such as "Get to your trough!")

All of the above was hard to pull off given the age-blind casting. The interpretation of the play was made more difficult by the choice to start Edward at a hysterical pitch and from there go over the top, traveling metaphorically from Y to Z without passing from A to X. This play requires a carefully modulated disintegration, and while the inflections in Edward's downward course were clearly charted, the audience saw only the last few degrees of his arc. So what was doubtless intended as a tour de force became instead a frontal assault, with Edward's mimed panic over slowly losing control of his world spreading wildly through gesture and word. (The ache of the title is a slight pain behind the eyes, which became dementia by play's end.)

Wegner's characterization was not helped by a thick mixture of lower-class English dialects (neither speaking character was all that understandable, Kindred because she didn't project enough -- this in a house where the actors were an arm's length from the front row). All the above faults are faults of youth, and perhaps to be winked at, but the correct pronunciations of "clematis" and "convolvulus" are not matters of mature technique -- the actor need merely look them up in the dictionary. Eigen's Matchseller showed some glimmers of mental activity, perhaps too much considering his function as inert catalyst.

Still, for all the wrong aim of this production, Wegner's performance showed an energy and fury that, properly tapped, have great promise.

The set, a few well-chosen set pieces, showed careful thought and good taste, especially a desk that was "found" (in an apartment lobby) while one of the cast was making a late-night fast-food delivery. Edward's costume, a brown suit with slightly flared legs, looked more Carnaby Street than squire (right period, wrong class). Flora wore a purplish frock that declared her somewhat to the frumpy end of the spectrum, but then why was she in heels? The lighting changed for divisions in the script but made few references to changes like pulling blinds and opening curtains, and came up (and went back down again) before the characters were set on stage.

The tea set at the beginning, for the signature scene in which Edward bravely drowns a wasp in the marmalade jar, didn't include a hot-water jug as called for in the script, so the hapless insect met its watery end drowned in tea. But the scene was gripping nonetheless, and it was a pity that the rest of the play didn't fulfill the beginning's promise.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 0
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 John Chatterton