The discovery of the evening is If, written by Brandon Walston... What we have here is a real dramatic voice.
Philadelphia Young Playwrights' Festival
Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through May 17 (735- 0631).
All three of the plays in this year's PYPF showcase (professional mountings of the best of the dozens of works developed in area schools over the past year, co-produced with the Philadelphia Theater Company) begin to take off when the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between characters are spanned.
In Rachel Tova Light's Amazon Women (written when the playwright was a junior at Cheltenham High School), the gap is, among other things, literal: Eric (Gabriel Johnson), a grounded high school junior, and Mary (Lisbeth Bartlett), by all appearances a small-town parochial school kindergarten teacher and "AOL-virgin," sit at their respective computer monitors in their respective bedrooms, clattering away at their keyboards, while corresponding in an online chat room called "Amazon Women," which he takes to be a place to meet babes and she a place to discuss local river basins with Brazilian senoras.
Eric hides behind the mask of an assumed adult hunk identity (he says he's a "fishtankologist"); she hides behind a mask of mousy reticence. By the end of the play, Eric's brash vulgarities and single entendres have managed to bring Mary out of her chrysalis (in a beautifully written aria about windows), and Mary's forthrightness and sincerity bring out the simple unconfident teenager from behind Eric's macho posturings.
There aren't many surprises here -- at least not until the ending, when the tables turn with an O. Henryesque twist. This ending mitigates somewhat the doubtful sexual politics of it all; but it also undoes the well-earned moments of sincerity that came immediately before it, leaving the audience somewhat wary of even the most sincere moments in the other plays on the program.
Skipping ahead, in Bob Dylan and the Lawn Jockey Revolution, the third play of the evening, written by Bruce Walsh when he was a senior at Pennsbury High School, the gap is generational. Ben (Rocco Rosanio) is a foul-mouthed teenage slacker feuding with the world and with his anxiously middle-class dad (Tim Moyer). The lawn jockey of the title is the concrete ornament that, for Ben, symbolizes everything he knows is wrong with his father's class-conscious (and covertly racist) suburban territoriality. (It's a little disconcerting that the play never challenges Ben's critique of his father, and so the play often seems as adolescent, as surly, and as angst-ridden as the central character.)
To Ben, Bob Dylan (whose music he finds annoyingly whining -- but, then again, who doesn't?), represents different things about different people in his life: when he hears his father sing along to Dylan, it represents lost '60s idealism; when he hears Dylan's music sung by Robert (delightfully played, with a winning grin, by Harry Philibosian), a 62-year-old psychiatric inmate institutionalized since traumatically defending Dylan at the singer's controversial second Newport Folk Festival appearance, it presents a horrifying image of arrested development.
Once again, the magic of the play is in the moment when gaps are bridged. And here it is a moment of startling clarity and simplicity, when Dylan's music ceases to represent anything, and, instead, simply means, beautifully communicating what the characters have failed to say and failed to hear.
The real dramatic discovery of the evening is If, written by Brandon Walston when he was a junior at Masterman High School. Here the characters are even more mismatched: Mia, first seen dancing barefoot in her slip to some slow jazz, is a working-class young Brooklynite with street smarts and a chip on her shoulder the size of Canarsie (played by Maggie Siff with an intermittent accent unheard in any populated section of Brooklyn); Kenneth (Forrest McClendon) is a "black Buppie nerd" Columbia student in a blazer, sublimely out of touch both with African-American culture (she calls him "denegrotized," and has to teach him that "'chitterlings' is pronounced 'chitlins'") and with his own sexual urges.
How Mia and Kenneth met (working as ushers in a Brooklyn art-cinema movie house), why they've come to his father's pied-a-terre, why she's taken off her dress, how he comes to love her, how and why they end up in Coney Island in each other's clothes on Halloween, remain mysterious, improbable, preposterous, insufficiently explained or over-explained. The dialogue is often indirect, obtuse and choked with aggressive lyricism ("I'm skin, I'm eyes, I'm dreams, I'm fever").
But what we have here is a real dramatic voice. The characters talk about movies (ranging from It's a Wonderful Life to Last Tango in Paris), but they don't act or talk as if the were in movies. And even the most cryptic and seemingly random events -- including a brief appearance of a woman on the boardwalk at Coney Island (Cathy Simpson), giving her own spin on youth, love and racial identity -- reveal the instinct and sensibilities of a genuine dramatic imagination. Walston is a young talent to watch, with a voice to listen to.
If is directed, with appropriately dark tones and textures, by Seth Rozin. James Christy directs Amazon Women, and Aaron Posner Bob Dylan and the Lawn Jockey Revolution.
-- Cary M. Mazer