- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

The dialogue is witty and chock-full of sarcasm in the newly written "In The Garden" by Norman Allen, playing at Arlington's Signature Theatre.

As the characters mentally and physically grind against one another, they extract lots of laughter during this short, 100-minute play.

But "The Garden" is barren in one way: Everything in the play works but its core.

John (Michael Kramer), a philosophy professor, is married to Muriel (Amy McWilliams), a fashion editor. They fulfill their roles in the marriage as blase intellectuals, alternately outwitting each other and avoiding intimacy.

Underneath the perfect facade and their lovely home, which looks as if it's straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog, John feels lonely and Muriel has stopped feeling at all.

Lizzie (Rachel Gardner) and Walter (Jerry Richardson), the couple's friends, are much the same way. They search for meaning and happiness, but achieve only financial success.

Enter Gabe (Steven Eskay), an intelligent, beautiful and homeless young man who shows the lost ones the light — or in this case what he calls "the quiet," something to which the constantly chattering professionals are deaf.

Sounds simplistic? It is.

The cast's acting is convincing, and James Kronzer's set is smart and used in every scene without changes. A bed, color-coordinated with the surrounding bookshelves against a silhoutted cityscape, stands in the middle. It is flanked by dining room tables, with two park benches in front.

Each is a place where the characters rendezvous with Gabe. Every detail feels right, down to the selection of books in the maplewood book shelf, Walter's expensive suit and Muriel's lush hair.

But the story, commissioned by Signature Theatre, feels as old as overripe fruit, or like a dusted-off self-help book. Norman seems to say, "Get back to the basics and you will be happy." Or, "Shed your material belongings and give to the poor and you will find redemption."

The characters lack nuance, and the story cries out for complexity.

Fascinated with the Bible, Gabe quotes the book relentlessly and shows each of the love-starved characters affection, and in several cases meets their sexual needs, too.

Gabe is 100 percent good, and the others are 100 percent lost.

His mantra — "If you don't bring out what's inside you, it'll destroy you" — is so preachy that had the other characters echoed Gabe in song, it would have come as no surprise.

Whoever Gabe is, whether he's the Archangel Gabriel, or everyone's conscience, or just plain crazy, his character isn't enigmatic enough to build the play around.

When John and the others attempt to give Gabe a roof over his head, he predictably responds that he wants to live in the park, in a world without walls, where he doesn't read about the sunshine or rainfall, but feels it.

Mr. Allen's is the first of four works commissioned by the Signature Theatre. (This one is directed by Daniel De Raey.)

John Strand's "The Diaries" opens next June. The other plays are still works in progress.

They are part of the Sallee New Century Play Series at Signature, which specializes in developing new works for the American stage with local playwrights.

Let's hope the next story has the freshness and luster that "In The Garden" lacks.

** TWO STARS

WHAT: "In The Garden"

WHERE: 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Tuesdays, through April 29

TICKETS: $25 and $28

PHONE: 703/218-6500 or 800/955-5566




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