It is indeed a bit of a strain to relate these five one-act plays by Jeffery Scott Elwell.
The first half of the evening presented a trio of couples, each dealing with the awkward formalities of dating and other pre-copulatory rituals. The writing was sharp and simple but above all else surprising, creating humor through the absurdity of the characters and scenarios - even borrowing a coup de théâtre from Ionesco's The Lesson. The result was a droll portrait of individuals straining to connect with one another, pleasingly cartoonish but always with a human core.
Yet when the final two plays turned the farce-o-meter down to zero, the result was not nearly as satisfying: the life story of a man who had contracted AIDS in an extramarital affair seemed outdated, while the confrontation between a WASPy college professor and his African-American custodian of seven years oversimplified each of the characters and plowed through the same issues of race, wealth, and status with an overtly moralizing tone for a full 35 minutes. The originality and witty edge of Elwell's writing got lost somewhere in this land of predictable pathos and preachy principles.
But in spite of this lack of unity, the evening was full of enjoyable performances. Heather Dilly maneuvered her three characters with skill, covering the gamut from hyperaggressive to fragile, and Bobby Sacher was the cornerstone of the production in the difficult role of Jack, the man facing the demons of HIV.
Other memorable performances included Jordan Foster's subtle chemistry as a lawyer-type "relationship consultant" opposite Ms. Dilly; and Marq Evan Todd was excellent in a pair of roles, the first coolly reserved and the second outright cold. Meredith McElroy added depth to her portrayal of a nymphomaniac megastar, creating an inner delicacy beyond her character's sexy facade.
The very solid supporting cast was cleverly directed by Geoffrey Tangeman, whose comic timing and pace were near flawless. Eugene J. Anthony directed the final one-act, bringing a less certain style to the stage that quickly became flat and predictable.
The simplicity of Jay Miller's set and lighting designs, along with unobtrusive costumes by Janis Martin, kept the focus appropriately on the human elements of these plays.
As a unit, Strained Relationships does not hold together. But occasional moments of pure delight in the writing and consistently strong performances fashion an enjoyable theatrical experience.
Directing: Tangeman 2/Anthony: 1
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Copyright 1997 Andrew Eggert