‘Death’ defies unusual venue

Tucked quietly inside the Deer Lagoon Grange on Bayview Road for two more weekends is the Theatre Now! production of” Death Defying Acts,” a trio of one-act comedies by award-winning writers David Mamet, Elaine May, and Woody Allen.

The evening begins with “An Interview” by David Mamet. It’s hell, and Bif Dangerfield plays an attorney damned to the hellfires for eternity. David Gignac is the agent of the devil whose duty it is to interrogate the sleazy lawyer and make him admit the truth about his life and career.

This first play is the most stripped down of the three. The lighting is dramatic, red, bold, and with the closely confined space at the grange, the temperature is smoldering. The added heat from the audience brings a technical aspect that can only be afforded at such a small venue.

Near the end of “An Interview” the lawyer asks why he was sent to hell. The devil’s servant responds with two reasons: “You passed the bar and you failed to live for eternity.” It’s a slowly delivered punchline to a cat and mouse conversation punctuated by unrelenting dramatic pauses.

Fans of Mamet’s work will no doubt understand the writer’s tendencies more than others and will be able to grip the delivery and will be more forgiving of the awkward pace. Others will need patience.

In Woody Allen’s “Central Park West,” it’s autumn and Kira Keeney is well-to-do psychiatrist, Dr. Phyllis Riggs, who discovers her husband having an affair with her best friend, Carol (Maureen Masterson).

Keeney’s character is more than happy to play a little reverse psychology of her own and to push people’s buttons. Speaking to her friend, she wallows in her own self-pity about her husband’s unfaithful deeds, then lets on that she knows who the other woman is and crushes her squirming friend with verbal abuse.

Just when the heat and the inflammatory remarks increase, in walks Carol’s manic depressive husband, Howard (Roy Feiring) distressed about having to place his father in a retirement home. The promotion for “Death Defying Acts” had it right when it claimed “Central Park West” to be “Woody Allen at his best.” It’s typical Allen to have one awkward situation interrupted temporarily with another.

Keeney carries Dr. Riggs well, with humor and believability without stretching over the top. At times her mouth is as dirty as the drink she constantly has in her hand. She has sass and feeds off others with quick comeback quips thick with cynicism.

“There’s a time to be rational and a time to run amok. I keep the steak knives in the blue drawer,” Dr. Riggs knowingly tells a depressed Howard.

To make sure the drunken fiasco is shaken and not gently stirred, in strolls Dr. Rigg’s psychologist-hating husband, played by Richard Evans, who has in tow the college student he plans to marry (Meara Aubin).

The comedic blend of Keeney, Masterson and Feiring only sharpens as the liquor is poured. The relationship pairing of Evans’ playboy character and Aubin’s fawning naivety are icing on the cake.

In Elaine May’s “Hotline” Cynthia Smithers is Dorothy, a neurotic woman who calls a suicide prevention center and ends up talking to a goofy Southern boy of a counselor on his first day of the job (Bif Dangerfield).

Dorothy is a New York prostitute with low self-esteem who can’t make ends meet because she can’t decide on rates to charge her clients. In her darkest hour, all Dorothy wants to do is call “The Suicide Center” that she saw in a Sidney Poitier movie. Her attempts are hindered by a directory service operator who doesn’t speak English and an Irish-brogue talking delivery boy (Steve Smith) who won’t leave. Smithers slips seamlessly into the skin of a former beauty queen with booze-laden suicidal depression who now turns tricks for cash.

Dangerfield is Ken Gardener, the uncomfortable fellow who finds himself on the other end of the line with Dorothy. Right when he finds himself making progress with the woman, she gives him a pleading ultimatum to come to her and she’ll feel better. All she needs is “just one surprise,” but the operator says no and Dorothy hangs up the phone.

As the searches to find his lost, there is supervisor intervention by, Dr. Russell (Dwight Zehm), and a cheery East Indian operator at the call center (Gignac) who is happy to please, but clueless as to why he must help people.

In the pursuit there’s humor, there’s contempt for a helping hand, and there’s powerful drama put forth by Smithers. “Hotline” makes for a nice finish to the evening of one-act comedies.

With this production, Evans and crew take a giant leap to take theater out of its normal box. Theater in venues like this is raw, truthful and powerful. In doing so it transports the arts back in time to when there was a theater company on every block and the competition was rich with creativity.

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