Stephen Sondheim said it best — “Art isn’t easy.” Neither is love, for that matter.
The transcendent powers of both are examined in two one-act plays staged by Longacre Lea at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre — Tom Stoppard’s wordy “Artist Descending a Staircase” from 1972 and local playwright-director Kathleen Akerley’s lean and economical world premiere “The Oogatz Man,” co-directed by Miss Akerley and Caitlin M. Smith.
“Artist Descending a Staircase” takes place in a garret, where three men who have been friends since school work and live. Martello (Michael John Casey), Beauchamp (Jason Lott) and Donner (Eric M. Messner) became artists in the giddy heyday of dadaism and cubism, when practically everything was art and no one had to justify his creations.
Many years later, Martello and Beauchamp are still slaves to the absurdist Muse, while Donner lately has embraced realism. After Donner suffers an unfortunate encounter with the stairwell, the two artists attempt to reconstruct what happened.
Was he murdered for defecting to classicism? This leads to a series of flashbacks, as their younger selves (Michael Glenn, Daniel Vito Siefring, Richard Owens) redefine art amid the dawning of World War I and woo the lovely Sophie (Heather Haney, who gives the play its only emotional payoff), a young blind woman who knows volumes about painting and human nature.
Only an intellect like Mr. Stoppard could leave a dead body on a landing while a bunch of egotistical aesthetes natter on about the meaning of art. Deft acting, art puns and clever references to Edith Sitwell, Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp are not enough to elevate “Artist” above the level of amateurish pretense.
Livelier fare can be found in “The Oogatz Man,” Miss Akerley’s inventive meditation on the modern insistence that our lives be set to soundtracks. Thomas (Mr. Messner), a young writer living in his head, faces such a dilemma. He wants to break up with his girlfriend, Kelly (Miss Haney) for reasons he cannot entirely fathom. She’s pretty, grounded and very accepting of his numerous quirks — so, what’s the problem? He just knows he wants to kick her to the curb, and he must have the right music — Metallica — to pull it off.
A busted Metallica CD sends Thomas on an Alice in Wonderland-esque trip through his apartment building, where he encounters a mysterious headbanger (Mr. Glenn), a garrulous and gung-ho neighbor (Mr. Casey), a magical maintenance man (Mr. Lott) and a somewhat sinisterly self-possessed upstairs neighbor (Abby Wood) who fishes — and lands one — in her watery living room.
The surrealist touches, for the most part, work, although the gimmick with the maintenance man switching the location of the apartment door wears out its welcome. “The Oogatz Man” goes from eccentric to emotionally resonant when Thomas explains how certain music suffuses him with feelings he can’t replicate in real life and with other people.
While the romantic ending seems rushed and contrived, Miss Akerley’s play astutely comments on the phenomenon that we just cant have experiences or live life or sit quietly and enjoy our thoughts anymore. Everything has to have musical accompaniment to provide the emotional outlets we can’t be roused to express for ourselves.
WHAT: “Artist Descending a Staircase” by Tom Stoppard, “The Oogatz Man” by Kathleen Akerley
WHERE: Longacre Lea at the Callan Theatre, Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Road NE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 13.
TICKETS: $12 to $18
WEB SITE: www.longacrelea.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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