By David Mamet
ACME Theater Project

David Mamet stuffs Glengarry Glen Ross with all the things we think of as typical Mamet. Because these are the things he does well, Glengarry Glen Ross ranks as one of his best plays. It has a cast of seven men -- no roles for women, roles Mamet rarely writes well. The dialogue crackles with Mamet's hyper-realism, a stage poetry made up of lots of profanity, fragmented sentences and quick interchanges alternating with long solos. The play overflows with the game-playing Mamet loves. These are very serious games for the play's real-estate salesmen, whose commissions, prizes and even careers ride on their outcome. And these guys, sleazy though they and their games may be, are very good at deceiving their customers, deceiving their supervisor, deceiving each other and deceiving themselves.

Glengarry Glen Ross gets a complex, exciting production from a new company in town, ACME Theater Project. Though the company is new, the faces in it are familiar, especially from productions of the Shakespeare Company and its mutant spawn, the Magic Smoking Monkey. Freed from the weight of Shakespeare's unfamiliar language and reveling in the comfort of Mamet's idiom, these actors blossom. Mack Harrell, no slouch even in Shakespeare, etches with great delicacy the character of Shelly Levene, a Willy Loman bragging about past successes but now in a slump, almost but not quite pleading, almost but not quite in despair as he demands some good leads from the young office supervisor so he can get back in the game. Later, when, as he says, he gets his balls back, his tale of triumph over a prospect is such wicked fun that you can't help rejoicing with him, though you don't really like him -- or any of these guys -- and you know he's skating on thin ice and probably deluding himself.

Bob Atchisson also turns in a stellar performance. He plays Richard Roma, currently the top salesman in the agency. This guy is so devious that he's onstage for 10 minutes rambling on about the meaning of life before you discover that he's one of the salesmen and this soliloquy is part of his pitch. Later, when you know he's conning a reluctant prospect, you admire his skill -- despite the sympathy Jim Ousley makes you feel for the poor dumb victim. Comfortably at home with Mamet's language, Atchisson speaks it with authority and transparency.

Rory Flynn as a nervous salesman saved from ruin by his own timidity, B. Weller as his coldhearted tempter, Ed Cole as the steely young office supervisor and David S. Brink as an insistent police detective join Ousley as splendid foils for Harrell and Atchisson. As director, Weller shares major credit for the cast's strong ensemble playing. But his often static blocking has one side of the audience looking at the backs of heads for long periods in the Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, where the company is performing.

The ACME Theater Project's Glengarry Glen Ross gives us a full dose of Mamet's harsh, bitter and mesmerizing descent into a world not unlike some parts of our own, in which only dollar values count and human values count not at all.

-- Bob Wilcox

By Nicky Silver
HotHouse Theatre Company

All a producing company (like HotHouse Theatre Company) has to do to provide a wonderful evening of theater is select an excellent play (like Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls), then put a skilled director (like Milton Zoth) in charge and cast all parts with excellent actors (like Penney Kols, in the best role of her St. Louis career, and a talented newcomer, Todd Schaefer, in another part with lots of meat to it). That's all there is to it.

Pterodactyls concerns an upper-middle-class family on the verge of extinction. Father (Chopper Leifheit) is a banker, mother (Kols) a housewife with a drinking problem, son (Schaefer) an HIV-positive sculptor, daughter (Sara Renschen) a young woman with no memory, especially of Dad's sexual abuse. In addition, there's the daughter's fiance (Thomas W. Quintas), who remembers all too well the priestly sexual abuse that came his way in a Catholic orphanage.

What happens to all these folks is absolutely horrible but very funny at the same time, especially with Silver's one-liners and savage repartee to help things along. The son has most of the really good stuff to say, and Schaefer has the mannerisms of a young man who can talk like this down pat. In a superb characterization, Schaefer gives the part a hilarious and lovable snottiness and establishes him as the ethical center of the evening -- clear-sighted, fearless, elegant and reluctantly compassionate.

Kols, as the booze-raddled Philadelphia Main Liner, is right on target all the time -- not one word, not one gesture out of character. Ninety percent of comic acting (or anti-comic, as Pterodactyls happens to be) is discipline and concentration, and Kols has brought, in addition, a good deal of experience to bear. The other three members of the cast are also terribly good, but Kols and Schaefer are stunning.

Milt Zoth seems to have gotten everything Pterodactyls has to offer up on the stage. Its pacing is exactly right; its ever-increasing darkness is both surprising and prepared for. The actors are never in one another's way. Thomas Quintas' set is clear -- although upstairs is really up there, and Patrick Huber's lighting is consistently supportive of the action. Lou Bird's costumes are always apt, particularly for Kols' character. Pterodactyls, in short, is a first-class evening of theater, a burst of awesome fireworks to close HotHouse Theatre Company's 1998-99 season. I think I'll go back to see it again. Maybe twice.

-- Harry Weber

By Joseph Dougherty, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Kirkwood Theatre Guild

The musical My Favorite Year did not fare well in its original New York outing, and I was surprised that the Kirkwood Theatre Guild selected it for their season. Based on the movie My Favorite Year, a cine-roman `a clef about the '50s TV comedy/variety program Your Show of Shows, Joseph Dougherty's book for the musical feels secondhand, with no surprises. It's choppy, too, and never quite decides what it's about. Stephen Flaherty's music sounds like lead-ins that rarely get to the melody, and Lynn Ahrens' lyrics rarely flash wit.

The Kirkwood production, directed by Mark D. Vaughan, doesn't impose a consistent style of its own on the material, though Barbara Vaughan's costumes try, and its pace sometimes lags. But the director has cast some attractive performers, especially Troy Schnider as the young writer looking back on his favorite year and Joel Hackbarth as the swashbuckling movie star the writer tries to turn into a father figure. Bert Wunderlich's and Mary Ellen Tobin's comic skills make them convincing as the Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca figures. Laura Kyro sweeps all before her as the writer's archetypal Jewish mother, and Glenn Guillermo charms as his stepfather. Playing the love interest, Kimberly Sansone sings beautifully. And I wouldn't have minded more of Sanjay Shastri's choreography.

-- Bob Wilcox

By Ben Swoboda
Only Simple Theater

Chickenfeed, a new play by Ben Swoboda presented by a new producing company, Only Simple Theater, at the St. Marcus Theatre last weekend, concerns a family living in dire poverty on a chicken farm. The mother, Vera, is tired of chickens and perhaps of Kurt, her husband, who seems to be holding onto the farm through some sort of criminal activity. The son, Vess, 16 or so, has had to leave school to help out, which he cheerfully does. He studies comic books and fantasizes about being a superhero. He is also horny.

Then Rubie, Vera's 21-year-old cousin, shows up. Vess knows that her husband has thrown her out but doesn't tell his folks. He also directs his horniness at her. She, on the other hand, tries to seduce Kurt in order to get her hands on his ill-gotten gains. He does not yield to her blandishments, but she finds the stash anyway and takes off. Kurt goes after her, shotgun in hand. Vera decides it's time for her and Vess to leave the farm, and the last scene has Vess and Mr. Minosa, a mysterious fellow in a half-mask who roams through the play, admiring the moon.

Eugene O'Neill would have taken several hours to present all this. Mr. Swoboda, however, gets it out in about 45 minutes by not paying a lot of attention to character development, by not explaining a lot of stuff -- like the mysterious Mr. Minosa, and with the help of a lot of ellipses. Kevin Long, the director, aided in its speed by having his actors speak very quickly (ordinarily a good thing), but all too often into the wings or the back wall. The actors themselves did quite well. Tim Freeman, as Vess, was consistently engaging; Rebekah Dowd, as Vera, was a convincing 45-year-old despite looking 19. Matthew Davis, as Kurt, also did well as a young man playing an older man, and Cari Luppens, whose character Mr. Swoboda did develop somewhat, revealed her wickedness slowly and interestingly.

So though Chickenfeed's young author has some things to learn about the craft, he has some idea of what he's up to, as does Long, who needs a little more experience as a director but certainly gets good performances from his actors. I am told that Only Simple Theater will be presenting more work this summer, and I look forward to seeing what this young troupe, with a little more experience, will do next time.

-- Harry Weber

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