- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

The disintegration of a marriage is harrowing enough to witness, but throw in racial tensions and the parting becomes disturbingly harsh and rancid.

That’s the case with young marrieds Gloria (Deidra LaWan Starnes) and Vincent (Jason Stiles), who don’t break up as much as they emotionally disembowel one another in Lanford Wilson’s play, “The Gingham Dog,” directed with a taste for the jugular by Jeremy Skidmore.

Written in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement, “The Gingham Dog” comes off as a more politicized “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” However, Mr. Wilson’s first Broadway play lacks the artistry and consummately cutting dialogue of Edward Albee’s masterpiece. The cruelty is there, though, as is the acidic portrait of two persons who can’t get along but can’t leave each other alone.

Gloria is a militant black woman from Harlem for whom race is not an issue — it is “the” issue. As her anger and bitterness over ingrained and institutionalized prejudice grows, she turns her bile upon Vincent, a white architect from Kentucky. Their once-happy union implodes as Gloria realizes she wants nothing to do with white society and Vincent grapples with trying to figure out where he fits in the world.

The play takes place in their East Village apartment, as Gloria packs up their belongings and Vincent anxiously awaits the movers. Every book and knickknack is a potential land mine as Vincent angrily reacts to the fact that his wife doesn’t want to keep anything from their marriage — except the bed and the TV he gave her as a gift.

Tensions mount as two outsiders enter the apartment — the flibbertigibbet homosexual neighbor Robert (Rick Hammerly) and Barbara (Casie Platt), Vincent’s bubbleheaded Southern belle sister. Their presence ignites a firestorm in an already touchy situation, and when they leave, Gloria and Vincent hunker down and attack each other’s skin color. It’s an ugly exchange, one so horrible that you wonder how these two racists ever got together in the first place.

After that, what could they possibly discuss in the second act? The last half of the play centers on the now-empty apartment. It’s close to dawn, and a tipsy Vincent finds himself drawn back to the scene of the crime. He stumbles up to the apartment to find a quiet and contemplative Gloria. And over many cups of instant coffee, the two try to make sense of their former marriage and why they turned on one another so violently. By the time morning comes and they reluctantly part — old habits die hard — they haven’t found answers but have at least given each other a scrap of tenderness.

“The Gingham Dog” is a youthful effort from Mr. Wilson that attempts to capture the reeling energy of civil rights-era America; a time that wasn’t all peace, love, and groovy vibes. Yet the dialogue is stilted, driving home a polemic point rather than going for naturalness. After the strident invective of the first act, the coziness of the play’s second half seems forced and false.

Miss Starnes and Mr. Stiles are accomplished actors on their own, but, together, they fail to spark any chemistry — not even a negative attraction. There isn’t a hint of a sexual magnetism that would explain how they got together in the first place. Both, in fact, seem to be more potent sexual beings when they’re apart rather than the proximity of their bodies giving off erotic friction.

Miss Platt and Mr. Hammerly’s characters are blatant stereotypes who exist solely to further the plot, and both actors bravely try to rise above the shoddy writing.

“The Gingham Dog” has merit as a curiosity and an example of Mr. Wilson’s early work. However, as a satisfying play it’s all bark and no bite.

*1/2

WHAT: “The Gingham Dog” by Lanford Wilson

WHERE: African Continuum Theatre Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 22.

TICKETS: $27 to $32

PHONE: 202/399-7993

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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