SAN DIEGO — For a relatively unknown theater company to tackle the works of relatively unknown playwrights suggests a guiding spirit with the impossible gallantry of the charging Light Brigade.
With this in mind, it would be lovely to report that the Progressive Stage Company's double bill, "Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard," playing through Nov. 21 at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, works. Alas, neither play holds together, but one, "The American Century," by Murphy Guyer, has a sparkling middle that shines thanks to the efforts of a winning cast under the witty direction of Wayne Tibbetts.
"The American Century" begins with a soldier returning to his wife at the conclusion of World War II. In the midst of their reveries about future bliss (which take place in a nicely designed kitchen by Patti Grant), a strange young man appears who turns out to be their future grown-up son, time-traveling to see his moment of conception.
This is "Back to the Future" territory, but with a difference. Guyer actually takes the opportunity to say some fresh things about the generation gap and, in a larger sense, about how much we need our dreams--however unrealistic--of the future. If we knew every bad thing that was to happen in our lives, how would anyone have the heart to get through?
Brad Hoover is terrific as the returning veteran; Army-poster handsome, it is marvelous to see the subtle twitching start as his hopes begin to slowly unravel before his eyes. Don Looper provides a perfect foil as the hip and neurotic modern son, and Rochelle Robinson does a lovely job capturing the bewildered sweetness of a '50s Donna Reed trying to make sense of a flip '80s soap opera reality.
The beginning is slow and the ending is predictable, but when "The American Century" gets going, it moves like a winner. Jim Blickensderfer designed the effective lighting.
In contrast, it is hard to see how "Girls We Have Known," by Ralph Pape, got billed as a comedy in the first place. Sitting behind a box that suggests a car, two men, played by Carlos X Pena (who is the Progressive Stage Company as well as the director for this piece) and J. Michael Ross, talk, as the title suggests, about girls they have known.
There are hints of characterization and ideas here than never quite break the surface. The acting is unmemorable in a script that seems to be chiefly remarkable for how much people can talk without saying anything.
Performances are at the Sixth Ave. Playhouse, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., until Nov. 21.
'Kiss Me Kate'
Zero degrees Kelvin is a theoretical yardstick that no one has actually experienced. Would that the same thing could be said of zero degrees acting. Unfortunately, that absolute is very much in evidence in the recent United States International University production of "Kiss Me Kate," now playing at The Theatre in Old Town through Sunday.
It's not that this high-spirited production isn't crammed full of good voices, good tumbling and good will. It's just that under Jack Tygett's direction, the utter lack of chemistry among any of the players results in a string of solos that makes this seem more like a revue than a cohesive dramatic unit.
It's a shame. Though the Cole Porter songs are unquestionably the star in any version of this show, the story about a divorced actor and actress taking their production of "The Taming of the Shrew" on the road can be a pleasurable romp on its own.
The songs are worth waiting for thanks to big-eyed, big-voiced Jamie Dawn Gangi as Lois Lane/Bianca ("Always True to You"), Andrea Griffith ("Another Op'nin, Another Show,") and Michael Berry ("Too Darn Hot") as singers without much else in the way of character to play, and the delightful Bob Mack ("Brush Up Your Shakespeare") as the gangster with an appreciation for culture. Their work, under the fine musical direction of Kerry Duse, is enhanced by Javier Velasco's imaginative choreography.
John Berger designed the inventive and colorful sets that move fluidly through a variety of backstage and on-stage changes. If only the show itself moved as well.
Performances are at 4040 Twiggs St., at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
"Foxfire," a tender play about an old Appalachian hill woman, seems to have been written by Hume Cronyn and Susan Cooper as a showcase for formidable acting talents, namely those of Cronyn and his wife, actress Jessica Tandy.
In the production now showing at the Mission Playhouse through Nov. 21, Anne Snyder's quiet, understated portrayal of the frail, yet resilient Annie Nations makes us forget about Tandy. Just watching her long, trembling fingers scrape a hog's head, feel her grandchildren's drawings, or stroke her dead husband's face is eloquence in motion.