Oasis Theatre Company closes an hour-long double-header of David Mamet one-acts this weekend, and I have no complaints about the stories (if you could call them that; Mamet's bad at plots) in The Shawl and The Sanctity of Marriage.
Casting these productions can be hard, though. It's a huge leap of faith to start in a new city where you don't know the pool of actors, to bust out the gate with canonical works (as Oasis did in 2017, to much success). The scripts are going to hold, that's for sure. It's whether the actors will that's the question.
It's not that I'm not impressed by this production; it's that they just fall a little short of what I'm used to from Oasis. (Then again, we've been spoiled.)
The Shawl, which runs about 45 minutes, is the story of John (Marty Madden), a struggling psychic who has found in Miss A (Lisa Foster) an easy mark. She has money, and he needs that money. Complicating things is Charles (Tristan Van Cleave), a young man whom John has taken on/taken in/taken over as an assistant, lover and trainee.
Madden, as ever, has a bridge to sell us, and I'll take four. He is consistently the most energetic on the stage, and his mix of desperate con man and struggling human being is endearing rather than pathetic. The psychic's lines draw chuckles from the audience; a passionate and breathy, "I see blood—a fall—when you were young—and you bear the scar still!" he exclaims. (Yes. That's everyone.) But Miss A seems enthralled.
It's hard to tell, though, whether Madden is steamrolling the others onstage or whether they need to step it up. Foster's Miss A can be forgiven, perhaps, because the whole point of her character is that she's being steamrolled—but she emerges mid-play as more fierce than expected, which is nice.
Van Cleave's Charles lacked the slimy motivation we needed from such an odd character. He's a bit fidgety and unsure, but not in the tweaked-out way Charles should be; this seems more like a lack of concentration. Particularly hard to buy was Charles making big asks of John without looking at him; a strange bit of direction if that's what it was, or a strange character choice on the part of Van Cleave. If Charles were a stronger, more defiant portrayal, I could have bought it, but he's too soft-spoken and wishy-washy to justify odd choices. Van Cleave's jump here, then, to a straight-man part (from more jaunty roles in The Normal Heart and the Playhouse's Fiesta Melodrama) was a stumble.
Mamet, a master of nuance and relationship, pens scripts that don't always say much on the page. Landing the lines is all in delivery and tone. Thus, casting a Mamet play is a surgical process. The characters and lines introduced to us here are absolutely worth taking in, because hey, it's Mamet—and thankfully the script is there to sail us though.
The Shawl and The Sanctity of Marriage
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 15-17; 3 pm Sunday Nov. 18. $22. The Oasis Theatre, 3205 Calle Marie, Ste. A, 917-439-7708
Is anything more surgical, then, than Mamet? I'd argue yes.
While at Rumors at Los Alamos Little Theatre, I said to my companion, "Farce has got to be the hardest form of theater." But then I corrected myself: "No; farce has got to be the hardest form of theater to cast. If your actors naturally have the timing right, it's fun."
Set in the home of a wealthy Hudson Valley couple, eight guests arrive over the course of the evening to find the host shot, his wife missing and the dinner still raw and sitting out on the counter. The reconstruction of what must have happened and the dynamics between the couples lead the ridiculous action.
It's yet another entry in the many-doors category of comedy (think Noises Off), though it depends less on mistaken identity than it does on the characters all being pieces of shit who lie constantly, many of whom have some kind of affliction—burned hands, whiplash—that make for a distinctly odd stage presentation. (Not to mention the costumes. They're amazing. Hats off to designer Pam Justice.)
My unscientific calculations say that actors' timing, on a scale of one to 10, needs to be at about a consistent eight to really pull off a fast-paced farce like this one by Neil Simon. That's a big requirement, particularly in a small town like Los Alamos. As it were, I'm pleased to report that these actors, for the most part, do it right. I've seen my fair share of community theater that drops the ball, but it stays mostly aloft here, to the pleasure of the audience.
If my aforementioned non-scientific calculations hold true, I'd say most of these actors hold steady at a solid eight throughout the show. A favorite performance comes from Holly Robinson's Claire Ganz, a tiny blond snark-bag full of eye rolls and sarcastic quips. A very different but no less amusing turn is Tami Martinson's Cookie Cusack, a slightly daft cooking show host whose facial expressions recall a bewildered guinea pig in the midst of a hurricane. Much of the cast has their timing perfect, particularly Ian Foti-Landis as Lenny Ganz.
As couples, each pair had great chemistry (also important and often a crapshoot). The Best Worst Couple Award goes to Thomas Graves as Glenn Cooper and Cindy Hines as his wife Cassie; Glenn is running for office and Cassie is his ever-suffering (and ever-insufferable) wife, and I could not imagine a pair that physically looks more like aspiring politician-and-wife. Their love-hate relationship is cringey and charming and you love to hate them. As it were, all the actors really looked like the archetypal characters they portrayed, which was delightful and uncanny.
Occasionally, Rumors does smack a bit of community theater, but I mean—that's OK. It is community theater. For the price and for the convenience, it's probably your surest bet for chuckles at live theater this autumn
7:30 pm Friday and Saturday Nov. 17 and 18. $12-$15. Los Alamos Little Theatre, 1670 Nectar St., Los Alamos, 662-5493