- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

''Awakening/Awareness" is the theme of this year's Potomac Theatre Festival and its two evenings of short plays effectively demonstrate the endless ways people either face up to reality or avoid it entirely.

Evening A is devoted to five works by Harold Pinter, alertly directed by Richard Romagnoli. These are not plays as much as they are sketches, emotional jottings. And as enigmatic as Mr. Pinter can be, you can only imagine what his scribblings are like.

Between the jottings and the "Pinter pauses," some times you don't know where the devil you are.

The first play, "The Black and White," centers on two homeless women (the excellent Sara Garland and Valerie Leonard) having a bowl of soup and some bread before going back out on the streets of London. Miss Leonard is more your classic homeless person paranoid, she guards her soup bowl, jerking her head around and snapping back to invisible voices and threats. She sits spraddle-legged at the table, completely abandoned and resigned to her life of scrabbling. Her dining partner, Miss Garland, is more like we wish street people would be sweet, deluded her only "tic" being the way she obsessively arranges her soup bowl and bread plate. Miss Garland's character is a romantic hobo, riding the all-night buses and talking rapturously about the pre-dawn sight of the Marble Arch.

The next sketch, "Precisely," is more of a bit than anything. Two media figures David Bryan Jackson and Sean Nelson banter about figures and statistics while a dumb show goes on around them. Completely baffling, but thankfully brief. The next piece, "Request Stop," is a short, naughty sketch about a woman (Miss Leonard) being the punch line of a ribald joke involving the name of a London neighborhood. It would be right at home on "Benny Hill." The fourth piece, "Victoria Station," is a gem. A cheerfully dim cab driver (Nick Olson, wonderfully dopey-faced) is "cruising about" London one night when his dispatcher (voiced by Richard Pilcher) calls in, wanting a passenger picked up at Victoria Station.

The driver has not a clue about Victoria Station or how to get there, leading to a discussion of Monty Python absurdity as the dispatcher tries to explain that a taxi driver actually picks people up and delivers them to an agreed destination. Mr. Olson never loses his doltish cool, placidly replying 'allo?" and "sorry" to the dispatcher's increasingly labyrinthine explanations and his escalating frustration. There is a terrific tension between Mr. Olson's docility and Mr. Pilcher's sarcasm and rage.

Evening A ends on a high note with "A Kind of Alaska," Mr. Pinter's searing meditation on the book, "Awakenings," by Oliver Sachs, which documented patients in years of deep "sleep" coming to with an injection of L-Dopa. The play takes place in a white hospital room, as Deborah (Miss Leonard) is awakened after 29 years. She speaks with difficulty, as if tasting words for the first time, and while the doctor (James Slaughter) is awed by the transformation, there is also great anguish and awkwardness present.

Deborah doesn't know where the years went, and speaks in the chattery, girlish cadence of a young teenager. She chides her younger sisters for having too much wit and for their taste in boyfriends, not comprehending that they are grown women. She speaks of Mommy and Daddy, family pets and her beau, Jack. It is excruciating to watch such childish prattle coming out of a woman's mouth, and Miss Leonard portrays the dichotomy with tremendous skill twisting her mouth like a pouty girl, wringing her hands with the great drama of an adolescent.

Her terror and disbelief deepen when Pauline (Lindsay Haynes), her youngest sister, walks in and Deborah barely recognizes her. As the enormity of what has happened begins to settle in, Deborah speaks of what it was like to be asleep that is was active and static at the same time, that she could hear people and feel them tend to her, but no one could hear her, no one was listening to her. The descriptions of this stillness and suspension, "this kind of Alaska" are oddly beautiful, leading you to wonder if awakening Deborah is a medical miracle or a curse.

Evening B is much more accessible and entertaining.

Director Cheryl Farone kicks off the evening with the bitterly hilarious "The After-Dinner Joke," playwright Caryl Churchill's teleplay written for Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee Year (1977). Now that QEII is celebrating her Golden Jubilee (50 years of reigning), the play takes on new freshness.

"The After-Dinner Joke" is a free-wheeling mishmash of short bits, sight gags, and portraits that revolve around the unsentimental education of Miss Selby (Tara Giordano), a young woman bristling with idealism. She learns the hard way that charity and politics are inseparable as she tries desperately to do good in an amazingly corrupt world.

Miss Selby works for a corporate charity not unlike Oxfam, which is tightly run like a business by the brisk Dent (Lee Mikeska Gardner) and the greatly amused CEO Price (David Bryan Jackson). Armed with little more than her idealism and a cell phone, Miss Selby bravely navigates through the world of society snobs who want to feel good about being rich enough to give to charity, celebrity spokespersons (there is a hooty bit about a celebrity chef who keeps digressing into gourmet recipes when trying to talk about starving people in the Third World), pop stars who are into causes for reasons far from altruism, royalty, relief efforts, guerrillas, terrorists and layers of subterfuge and bureaucratic red tape.

It's all kind of a crap shoot, since some of the bits work better than others (the TV ads depicting starvation and poverty without being downers, are a scream). But the 75-minute play is buoyed by Miss Giordano's nearly unsinkable spirit. She is like Mary Tyler Moore in the Third World, trying to be helpful and upbeat amidst an impossible situation. And now that caring is hip again, Miss Selby emerges once again as a modern-day hero for at least trying.

Evening B saves the best for last: playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's intriguing "Scotland Road." Heaven knows, we love our "Titanic" stories, whether trivia or epic motion pictures starring Leonardo Di Caprio.

And "Scotland Road" is a pip, an engrossing tale that is part psychodrama and part Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The title comes from a passageway named by the Titanic crew that ran along the ship and went up past the first class quarters to the upper deck. Yet the play takes place in the present, when a young woman (Kristen Connolly) is found on an iceberg in the North Atlantic. She is in turn of the century clothing and claims to be a survivor of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.

Tabloids have seized her story, and she has attracted the attention of a rich man named John (Steven Carpenter), who has her brought by Dr. Halbrech (Lee Mikeska Gardner) to an isolated lab-like space in Maine.

In these sealed conditions, and by giving her such "prompts" as the last first-class meal served on the Titanic, John hopes to expose her for a fraud. Miss Connolly gives a quietly commanding performance as the intriguingly self-possessed young woman. With her exquisite stillness and calm, Miss Connolly gives the impression of a woman out of time, from another world who does not exist except in our imagination.

Both John and the doctor become riveted by the young woman, whose silence and probing gaze provoke them to tell her their secrets. When John plays his trump card wheeling in the last Titanic survivor, Miss Kittle (the scene-stealing Vivienne Shub), an elderly sharpie who doesn't suffer fools gladly it is his world that is shattered, not the young woman's.

The delicious part about "Scotland Road," directly as tautly and cleverly as a classic mystery play by Chris Hayes, is how it plays both into our enduring nostalgia and fascination about Titanic lore and our love of a good puzzle.

No one is as they appear in "Scotland Road" and everyone is pretending to be someone theyare not.

Instead of giving answers and tying everything up neatly, the play is more like a haunting dream, lovely and indecipherable.

All the plays in the Potomac Theatre Festival are not wowers like "Scotland Road" and "A Kind of Alaska," but all do vividly portray how we face and deface the truth.



***

WHAT: Potomac Theatre Project/"Pinter Briefs," "After-Dinner Joke" and "Scotland Road"

WHEN: Running in repertory through Aug. 11

WHERE: Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney

TICKETS: $10

PHONE: 301-924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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