Burning Coal Theatre Company’s latest production -- Safe House by Lydia Stryk and 90 in 90 by Jerome Oster, two brand-new plays performed in repertory -- is a mixed bag. I liked 90 in 90 almost as much as I disliked Safe House.
90 in 90, which takes its title from the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra “90 meetings in 90 days,” is a compelling drama about an alcoholic writer for an advertising agency who thinks that he is farther along on his journey toward sobriety than he really is. Durham, NC dramatist Jerome Oster demonstrates a fine feel for his subject matter, creates some convincing characters, and plots a powerful dramatic payoff.
New York City playwright Lydia Stryk, on the other hand, tries to make Safe Housea sort of spy-vs.-spy techno-thriller, with touches of the Theatre of the Absurd. Maybe the plot makes sense to a practicing paranoid, but it was all sixes and sevens to me. Worse, it totally wastes the considerable talents of Derrick Ivey and Debra Gillingham, who play Henry and Mary, an ostentatiously theatrical spy and his obviously unfulfilled wife -- two miserable souls trapped in an unhappy marriage -- and especially Delaware actress Jenn Suchanec, who portrays Marta, a mysterious and beautiful defector who jump-starts the libidos of both Henry and Mary.
Needless to say, ostentatiously theatrical spies quickly become dead spies; even obviously miserable and unfulfilled wives balk at initiating affairs with their husband’s partners in espionage; and mysterious and beautiful defectors never fall so quickly into the tender trap set by the likes of two exceptionally needy people like Henry and Mary. That way lies almost-certain torture and death for Marta.
One point of Safe House seems to lampoon CIA types as histrionic buffoons. (Henry’s hobby is entertaining children while performing flamboyant magic tricks as a clown!). Another point seems to be to maneuver the two women into a passionate kiss. (Well, what else is there when your shared enthusiasm for shopping and fine dining flags?) Moreover, consciousness of the constant, inescapable eavesdropping and the 24/7/365 high-tech surveillance in the world that the Safe House characters inhabit are the best arguments against the plausibility of any of the play’s plot turns ever taking place.
Under the disappointing direction of Jody McAuliffe, Derrick Ivey is so over the top that Henry loses all credibility early on; and Debra Gillingham never has the dialogue or the opportunity to develop her character into anything more than a garden-variety unhappy housewife. Jenn Suchanec, at least, is allowed a very sexy entrance and a modicum of mystery. Who is Marta, where does she come from, is she a double agent? Henry and Mary, on the other hand, are two dreadful people that you want to avoid at a sit-down dinner.
By contrast, 90 in 90 is a far more compelling piece, with dialogue that rings true, fully three-dimensional characters that the audience comes to care about, and sure-handed staging by director Carnessa Ottelin. Peace College Theatre director Kenny Gannon is very good as Joe, the central character for whom any type or quantity alcoholic beverage is poison -- and not just alcohol, but any type of activity, such as dating, where social drinking is the norm. Just one sip will likely derail Joe’s recovery and trigger another binge.
New York City actress Jenny Wales is never quite convincing as Dana, the head-turning “beauty” whose mere entrance into a room attracts every straight male’s attention. Dana is an It girl and Wales never has enough It to make Joe’s immediate and intense attraction for her believable.
Brian Patrick Mullins is terrific as Richard, Joe’s sponsor in AA and the somewhat cynical counterman of a coffee shop where Joe makes his home away from home. Margaret-Ellen Shouse is too young and cute to make her not-so-secret crush on a middle-aged, middle-class man like Joe completely believable. (Believe me, twenty-something gals do not go gaga for tweedy forty-something guys anywhere but on stage and in the movies or on TV.)
Jim Moscater and Leah Aizen provide some edgy comic relief as Dana’s friends Mike and Linda, but their timing seemed a little off at the Sunday matinee. Adam Traylor also was a little off as David, Dana’s confrontational globetrotting mega-jerk of a boyfriend; and William Stutts came on too strong -- way too strong -- as a Good Looking Man, who tries to chat Dana up in the coffee shop.
Set designer Sonya Drum and lighting designer Christopher Popowich do excellent work on both shows, costume designers Carson Mather (Safe House) and Vanessa Streeter (90 in 90) dress their casts for success, and sound designers Marc Ferris (Safe House) and Jeremy Allen (90 in 90) add to the show’s aural appeal. Unfortunately, Marc Ferris’ original electronic music for Safe House is jumpy at first, like the soundtrack of a cheap European thriller, but becomes more and more annoying as the show goes on.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Safe House (Dec. 10, 16, and 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.) and 90 in 90 (Dec. 9, 11, 17, and 19 at 7:30 p.m.) in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25 for both plays or $15 per play ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel). 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm [inactive 12/04]. Note: The Dec. 4th performance will be audio described. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/.
by Robert W. McDowell
In keeping with its history of producing provocative new works by up-and-coming playwrights, Raleigh, NC-based Burning Coal Theatre Company will present the world premieres of Safe House by New York City playwright Lydia Stryk and 90 in 90 by Durham dramatist Jerome Oster, in repertory, Dec. 2-19 in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. Durham director Jody McAuliffe will stage Safe House; and Carnessa Ottelin of Raleigh will direct 90 in 90.
McAuliffe is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama. She teaches at Duke University. Ottelin earned her MFA in directing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She assisted director Matthew Earnest in staging Burning Coal’s May production of The Man Who Tried to Save the World.
"90 in 90 came to us through our New Works program,” says Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis. “We did a staged reading of it directed by David Dossey, and we really liked it and thought it had potential and that Jerome Oster was a playwright worth developing. With Safe House, Jody McAuliffe from Duke called me and said ‘I want to do this play.’ I said, ‘Well, send me a copy.’ She did, I loved it, and we decided to do it in rep with 90 in 90.”
Davis says, “Speaking as artistic director, I’m very excited about the idea of a repertory season of new works. The two plays compliment each other in interesting and subtle ways, and I’m curious to see how our audiences respond to the combination. Stylistically, they are virtual mirror images of one another: one [90 in 90] a naturalistic, character-driven slice of life, the other [Safe House] a very stylized, plot-driven, atmospheric piece of a Pinteresque nature.”
He notes, “Safe House is about a minor government operative (Derrick Ivey) and his wife (Deborah Gillingham) who are visited by a foreign woman (Jenn Suchanec) of Middle-Eastern heritage. The woman’s developing relationship with the wife leads to a deterioration of the couple’s marriage and, ultimately, an encroachment into their lives by shadowy government forces.”
Davis says, “90 in 90 is about a recovering alcoholic named Joe (Peace College Theatre director Dr. Kenny Gannon) who is surrounded by a well-meaning community of friends. Richard (Brian Mullins) is his AA contact, and a kind of mentor. Richard runs a coffee shop at which Joe lights regularly to drink (coffee!) and recover himself. Into the shop one day walks Dana (Jennifer Wales), a beauty who returns to Joe some of his feelings of invincibility, which leads him right back off the wagon.”
In addition to directors Jody McAuliffe and Carnessa Ottelin, the production team for Safe House and 90 in 90 includes set designer Sonya Drum (both shows), lighting designer: Christopher Popowich (both shows), costume designers Carson Mather (Safe House) and Vanessa Streeter (90 in 90), sound designers Marc Ferris (Safe House) and Jeremy Allen (90 in 90) and two props mistresses and a master Mariette Booth and William Noland (Safe House) and Tori Mazar (90 in 90). Safe House will also feature original music by Marc Ferris.
Jerome Davis says, “Designing two plays at once is very interesting. We have two wonderful lead designers, Chris Popowich from Pittsburgh (lighting design) and Sonya Drum from Raleigh (scenery). The two have the spectacularly complex job of design one set and one light plot that will work for two completely different plays. The other designers (sound, costumes, props, video) have it a little easier, in that each will only do one production and focus entirely on that one production.”
Davis says the set for Safe House is “an anti-naturalistic world with many possible locations, some specific, and some general or unspecified. Also, Safe House has some amazing LCD technology (moving images) projected onto the scenery.” He says the set for 90 in 90 is “a relatively naturalistic coffee shop in Manhattan.”
With the production of these two world premieres, Davis says, Triangle audiences will have the rare opportunity of seeing two new works by up-and-coming playwrights for the first time ever. “It’s two new plays in repertory, one by a local author,” Davis says. “What could be better? I hope everyone will come out and support new writers. We could use a few today!”
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Safe House (Dec. 2, 4, 10, 16, and 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.) and 90 in 90 (Dec. 3, 9, 11, 17, and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.) in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25 for both plays or $15 per play ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance Dec. 5. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm [inactive 12/04]. Note: The Dec. 4th performance will be audio described. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/.