Piece-Meal, presented Dec. 1-4 and 15-16 by Both Hands Theatre Company at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, is a real head-scratcher. Written by Tamara Kissane and Cheryl Chamblee and directed by Chamblee, this original but ultimately enigmatic comedy about relationships brings to mind the old Janis Joplin song “Piece of My Heart.”
Before the curtain rises on the fateful dinner party during which the play unfolds, seven of the show’s eight characters have quite literally exchanged pieces of their hearts — in romance or in friendship — with some or all of the other six. These tangible tokens include seashells, buttons, cinnamon sticks, bottle caps, playing cards, acorns, and river rocks.
The tokens are the “pieces,” and the dinner party is the “meal”; but there is some poetic-symbolic logic here that escapes me. Indeed, Piece~Meal seems more like an exercise in improvisational comedy than a carefully crafted script, because there is simply not enough background on the characters in the dialogue or enough character development during the play to tell who is who and what their current and former relationships are.
The playing field is splendid, however. It includes an imaginative set designed by Joe Keilholz, Adam Sampieri, Cheryl Chamblee, and Tamara Kissane and decorated with cleverly conceived furniture pieces designed by Jeff Bergman and Doug Nicholas and inhabited by an interesting array of characters handsomely dressed by Dierdre Shipman.
The nominal hosts of the dinner party (J Evarts and Lance Waycaster) are a couple in trouble. She is unhappy because she keeps misplacing the river rock that symbolizes the piece of himself that he has given to her as a token of his rock-steady commitment to her.
The guests include another couple (Byron Jennings II and Beth Popelka) and two friends (Laurie Siegel and Nicole Quenelle) , plus a handsome singer/guitar player (Adam Sampieri) who has no trouble finding the party. (Both couples are first glimpsed on the road in their automobiles, having difficulty finding their hosts’ house, which the musician finds with ease.) The eighth character of the show is a mysterious bicycle messenger with a Mohawk haircut (Jay O’Berski), who peddles on and offstage a couple of times.
There’s something happening here, and I don’t know what it is. On the surface, there is a dinner party in which various friends and lovers reunite and reminisce and fondle tokens — theirs and other peoples’. Some are happy, some are disgruntled, some get drunk, and all but the host couple eventually go home.
Like the proverbial takeout dinner from a Chinese restaurant, the Sunday evening performance of Piece~Meal left some of the audience hungry for more — for something more filling or more substantial, at least — despite a fine cast that did its best to bring these sketchy characters fully to life. Presented as part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices series, this Both Hands Theatre Company production will go on hiatus this week and complete its run Dec. 15th and 16th.
Both Hands Theatre Company presents Piece-Meal Thursday-Friday, Dec. 15-16, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday/Sunday and $15 Friday/Saturday. 919/682-3343 or via tix.com at the presenter's site. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.
Note: A letter to the editor from Daryn O'Shea, concerning this review, is posted in our letters section.