Monday, April 02, 2007

PLAY: "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs could've been a fantastic play, a real American classic. (In some aspects, at the time, it was.) But William Inge's small town tragedy is missing the tragedy and is left only with some subtle observations on the brittle, self-defeating nature of man. It doesn't help that the first and third act are sluggish and protracted, nor that Transport Group's production has emphasized the overbearing monologues with equally overbearing lighting. The second act is a buoyant, lively piece of theater that exemplifies storytelling, and it is commandeered by the delightfully vivacious Lottie Lacey (Michele Pawk) and her deadpan dentist of a husband, Morris (Jay Potter, master of the awkward pause). Simply put, Inge's quiet brand of suffering only works when it wears a happy face (which is what makes Bus Stop such a pleasant work): the awkward resolutions and confabulations are the sturdy center of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

There are major issues addressed in Inge's play, including suicide and spousal abuse, but because his three acts are disconnected in thematic structure, the final resolution of those scenes seems rushed and ill-conceived. The few dramatic moments in the stagnant finale revolve largely around a confessional series of soliloquies from the wild, passionate patriarch of the Flood family, Rubin (steadily but unsurprisingly played by Patrick Boll) and some poorly scripted attempts by the matriarch, Cora (a distant Donna Lynne Champlin) to take charge of her own life. The two actors don't have much in the way of chemistry, and given all that we've heard about their characters, the words (at this point) actually come in the way. Flirt (Liz Mamana), a ditzy friend of the shy, pallid Reenie Flood (Colby Minifie), appears out of the blue to give an announcement that is shrugged off by both the playwright and (accordingly) the actors, and neither of the two children (the bland and uncharming Sonny, played by Jack Tartaglia, is the other) have any sort of dramatic arc or change in their personalities to even justify what passes as "side plot."

I don't enjoy panning Inge's work, especially from a man who comes up with such powerful statements as: "I wish that someone loved me enough to hit me," and "Sometimes the people who act the happiest are really the unhappiest." But there's a sense of pinning the tail on the donkey in his development, and he leaves a lot of holes in his script trying to get it on just right. The two characters we're interested in, Sammy (the depressed young boy, played by a bright-eyed Matt Yeager) and Lottie are all-too-brief candles in the wind, and the ones we're left with are never adequately handled. I respect Jack Cummings III for reviving this show for its fiftieth anniversary, but he doesn't do enough: his early theatrics (the walls are transparent, making the characters behind them ghosts and darkness, at all once) aren't matched by the script, and though there's a valiant struggle in the second act, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs simply isn't very riveting.

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