- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fifty Words

Adam and Jan, a successful 30-something New York couple whose marriage is the battlefield in Michael Weller’s

“Fifty Words,” are spending their first night alone together in nine years.

That lack of quality time is partly due to the needs of their troubled son Greg, who is having his first sleepover on the evening we encounter them in their apartment, where Adam is preparing to leave on one of his frequent business trips. Adam and Jan’s naughty sexual banter, however, masks deep wounds that neither partner has been willing to confront - until tonight.

Adam, who amus es us with tales of his own delinquent childhood, is unconcerned by Greg’s misanthropic behavior, which has led to problems at his upscale private school. His permissiveness leads Jan, who epitomizes the uptight Manhattan mother, to accuse him of parental delinquency (“I need you to be a grown-up,” she orders). A revelation of infidelity, a stream of insults and rough sex ensues.

Jan, who gave up on her hopes of becoming a professional dancer to join the rat race, has since come to the conclusion that her life with Adam is a sham, “a marriage constructed around just a child.” Adam - who tries his best with a shrill and capricious wife - is the more sympathetic character, to the point that his unfaithfulness, if not morally defensible, at least makes sense. The play, staged in the round at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., takes place entirely in the couple’s sleek kitchen, whose implements serve alongside words as weapons.

Despite the awful things they say to each other over the course of two acts, it’s nonetheless evident why these characters - brought vividly to life by Anthony Crane and Joey Parsons - originally fell in love, and we’re invested in their attempts to recapture that original spark. That’s a credit to Mr. Weller, who has updated the template of the spousal domestic drama exemplified by Edward Albee in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In both plays, the characters try to outdo one another in verbal warfare (“You can say just about anything when you know there’s no future,” Jan tells Adam), and an unseen child is a source of marital discord.

When Jan tells Adam that marriage is simply the least worst option for “two people who aren’t good enough to go it alone,” it hits us with disturbing veracity. With this dreary assertion, Mr. Weller cuts to the eternal core of romantic coupling.

3 1/2 stars

Dear Sara Jane

Marriage is the template of “Dear Sara Jane,” a one-act, one-woman play featuring a pixieish woman (Joey Parsons again) whose husband Jerry is off killing Arabs in some faraway land. The notion that the Bush war on terror was a mere pretext for the fulfillment of deep-seated aggressive impulses endemic to American culture is the reductively psychological message of playwright Victor Lodato, who wants to let us know that he really, really, really hates war.

Sara Jane is a caricature of the red-state army wife. “They say some of the children are terrorists too,” she informs the audience, after recounting a series of disturbing war-zone photographs she saw. Meanwhile, her mother, a woman proud of her family’s long line of veterans - “war people,” in the words of Sara Jane - is a victim of many plastic surgeries and a racist whose foreign policy is “to kill every last one of them.” She stands in contrast to Sara Jane’s troubled yet virtuous sister (played by Ms. Parsons donning a trench coat and messy wig), a bag lady who rants about the horrors of war.

Jerry has a penchant for sadomasochism that he’s taken with him to the battlefield, where he executed a civilian and mailed the skull home to Sara Jane as a trophy. “He’s always had an animal nature,” she tells us. Mr. Lodato’s point seems to be that Americans are an inherently violent people, that our violence is a perverse consequence of our sexual desires, and that we sow destruction wherever our imperialist impulses take us.

“Dear Sara Jane” isn’t just anti-Iraq war, like umpteen other polemics masquerading as dramas in recent years, but unreflectingly pacifist, and it exudes all the rank stupidities and moral preening that that naive ideology entails.

“How can I want it one way in the bedroom and another way out there?” Sara Jane asks. Such questions are best left to third-rate sociology professors, not serious dramatists.

1 star

History of Light

In Eisa Davis’ “History of Light” marriage proves elusive for Soph, a 30-something black musician who pines for her childhood friend and the only man she ever loved, Math, a white businessman. The play’s dramatic action hinges upon the efforts of Susan, a white, aging radical and former girlfriend of Soph’s absent father, Turner, whom Soph has never met. Out of the blue, Susan sends Soph a series of old love letters penned by her father and recounts her all-too-short romance with him during the heady and dangerous days of the civil rights movement.

Ms. Davis charts Soph and Math’s romantic dance, from their playing capture the flag on the middle school playground to an angry spectacle in a fancy restaurant, where Math rejects her proposal of matrimony. Concomitant with the pain of Math’s rebuff, however, is the joy of Turner’s rejoining her life.

The playwright doesn’t beat us over the head with questions of race, though her leftist politics do occasionally get in the way of accurate storytelling (it was Democrats, and not Republicans - as Ms. Davis would have us believe - who attempted to filibuster the Civil Rights Act. Certainly more than a few West Virginians in the audience remembered that local favorite Sen. Robert C. Byrd led the effort).

In a competent cast, Amelia Workman is a revelation as Sophie. When she tells Math at the end of the play that “everyone I’ve been with is a band aid for you,” we believe her, which is the most we can want from an actor.

3 stars

WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHERE: Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.

WHEN: Through Aug. 2. Performance times and dates vary.

TICKETS: Tickets vary for single sales, packages and special offers. Please visit https://www.catf.org for complete festival pricing.

PHONE: 800/999-CATF (2283) or 304/876-3473

WEB SITE: https://www.catf.org

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