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Stage Reviews: Comedy lost in first of 3 new plays, but dialogues rich in other two

Saturday, September 20, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

This week's New Works grab bag offers two "coupla friends sitting around talking" dialogues and one more ambitious, unusual piece. The two dialogues, however, being much better acted, make the more effective theater.

David Guaspari, "Shaft (or, the Tortoisiad)"

This is the ambitious one, and unusual it is. Guaspari's schlemiel-like hero is Zeno of Elea (James Gavigan), a Greek philosopher of circa 500 B.C. credited with the invention of dialectic. He advanced the theorem, beloved of schoolkids, that a moving body can never reach a certain destination because, proceeding first halfway to its goal, then halfway further, it can never accomplish its infinite series of moves.

Pittsburgh New Works Festival

Where: Hamburg Studio at City Theatre, Bingham and 13th streets, South Side.

When: 6 and 9 p.m. today; 4 and 7 p.m. tomorrow; Festival concludes next week with three more plays.

Tickets: $7; 412-881-6888 or


That paradox shows up in the play, but the one that probably first attracted Guaspari is Zeno's notion that if a tortoise gets a head start on Achilles, Achilles can never catch up because whenever he reaches the spot where the tortoise was, the tortoise has moved on.

There is a pragmatic riposte to this, of course, as there is to Zeno's other paradoxes, which prove, for example, that an arrow in flight is actually at rest. In "Shaft," Zeno is confronted with his sexy young wife, Diotima (Adrienne Ciuprinskas); an obstreperous pupil, Lysis (Tommy Kolos); that Homeric jock, Achilles (Scott VanDemark); and a bunch of tortoises (plush toys) -- all of whom pose such pragmatic challenges as sexual interest, physical force, power struggle and surprise can offer.

But it's all words. They're witty on paper, as I confirmed by borrowing a script to read, but in performance, they blur. This is mainly because the production by the Heritage Players, directed by Carol Schaefer, forgets the simple secret of comedy acting, as once enunciated by actress Athene Seyler, "to listen carefully and to speak clearly."

Simple, right? But these actors keep trying to play funny -- petulant, smarmy, ironic and arch, arch, arch -- and the words, which need crisp articulation, get buried.

Granted, Guaspari loads them with a lot of arcane argument. His jokes include a character who talks like the "Iliad" and another hyper-aware of being a pre-Socratic (anachronisms, you see -- academic humor), a running gag on Achilles' "Greek" proclivities, and so on.

"Shaft" aims at intellectual farce, but the physical movement is irresolute, so the farce is all in the words, and Guaspari himself sometimes buries the plot and the comic cross-purposes in tortured repartee. "I'm losing the thread," says Diotima, and she's not alone. But there's a lot of brain power in the script.

Audrey Cefaly, "Fin and Euba"

Fin (Erika Cuenca) and Euba (Katie Case) are young women millworkers in a boring Southern backwater, circa 1987, condemned to straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs. The most precious commodity is hope, of which Fin has more than Euba.

Euba, however, has some skill as a photographer and has just received a letter from Life magazine that may offer her a way out. As they sit out back of their drab boarding house, with its unseen tyrant flashing the curfew light, Fin tries to inspire her, but Euba is afraid even to open the letter. They squabble, sharing their hopes and fears.

Produced by Unseam'd Shakespeare Company and directed by John Gresh, this is a small, realistic scene, occasionally forced in how it introduces necessary exposition (how do two people tell us what both already know?), but well structured in that the conversation eddies around serious subjects, gradually finding its way into deep water.

The scene's success has a lot to do with the two actresses. Their portraits of poor but scrappy rural Southerners start out feeling a trifle condescending (accents waver), but they build in believability as the stakes increase. Euba's anguish is never clarified, but overall, this small play compels sympathetic attention.

Corey Reiger, "Epiphany"

Here, the two friends sit on a park bench in some present-day city. Tim (Gregory Caridi) is all in a swivet because he's just seen a homeless man whom he imagines to have a sense of purpose, challenging his own passionless lack of direction. Beth (Bridget Carey) listens sympathetically but with an odd disconnectedness.

Then, after Tim's whiny kvetching has gone pretty far toward explaining her reticence and begun to disconnect our interest, too, the play turns. Tim suggests a way out of his malaise, and Beth is energized -- furious, mainly, as details about their past relationship come tumbling out.

Much of that past inevitably seems to come from nowhere, asking us to take it on faith. But it certainly injects spirit into the proceedings, and Caridi and Carey rise to the occasion with a comic/emotional flair that strikes sparks. This includes an active physicalization, for which director Jennifer Obed Moats (for Pittsburgh Playwrights' Theater) must take some credit.

Playwright Reiger appeared as an actor in the festival's first week -- he's on a roll.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at or 412-263-1666.

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