Hate Is Bad 

Local troupes stage plays by David Gow, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet.

Hate is bad: There is nothing wrong with David Gow's Cherry Docs that a complete rewrite by someone with talent couldn't fix.

How's this for a threadbare idea? Take two people who seem, at least on the front end, to be opposites in every imaginable way. Now place them in an arena where they are forced to deal with one another until both parties discover that when you get right down to it they aren't so different after all. Awwwww. This well-known formula, which has served everyone from the mighty Neil Simon to the many nameless authors of untold made-for-TV movies, is the essence of Cherry Docs, a ponderous one-act play about a bright, superficially charming skinhead turned murderer and the bright, superficially charming Jewish attorney who defends him. What do we learn? Why, that we all have the capacity for hate, of course. And especially that neo-Nazi skinheads, who kick people from various ethnic backgrounds in the head with steel-toed Doc Martens until their brains splatter on the ground, are people too. They can change for the better. Awwww.

The biggest problem with Cherry Docs, which has been noted by just about every critic since the show was originally produced, is that the majority of the action takes place behind the scenes and in many cases involves vague characters we never actually meet and whose motives we can never begin to understand. It's all talk, talk, talk and no do. The "gritty" story is almost entirely narrated by two 2-D characters via monotonous soliloquies that drag on forever and which too often stray far afield from the matter at hand. When Danny the lawyer (an unusually stodgy Jeffrey Lamer) and Mike the skinhead (a predictably ornery Steven Burk) do encounter one another for the play's few dramatic moments, they either read over depositions or exchange tart barbs like "I hate you." "Oh, yeah? Well I hate you too." The good-hearted skinhead's eventual conversion to a life of tolerance and understanding is entirely unbelievable.

Jackie Nichols' set, an exercise in bare necessity, is the best thing the show has going for it. It's too bad the actors, who, to be fair, are doing the best they can, given the hack material, have to come out and spoil it.

Cherry Docs is at TheatreWorks through January 20th.

Your cheatin' heart: Pinter's Betrayal is well-acted but wanting at Theatre Memphis.

Though it is chronologically fractured, Betrayal, Harold Pinter's 1978 one-act about the collapse of an extramarital affair, is one of the celebrated English writer's least innovative pieces. But the fat-free dialogue of Betrayal, arranged like a modern cello quartet, makes it one of his most enduring. Over time the play becomes less about who did what to whom and more about who knew who did what to whom and when they knew it.

After a nearly decade-long hiatus, Mary Margaret Walker, née Guth, makes a notable return to the Memphis boards as an ambitious dealer of modern art who wants to have her cake and sleep with it too. The bratty adulteress isn't the least bit torn between her philandering but otherwise conservative publisher husband (played to the extra-dry hilt by Tony Isbell) and his best friend, the philandering if somewhat more progressive publisher lover (the always affable Barclay Roberts). In fact, it's not clear that she actually wants either of them nearly as much as she wants to just have things her way. The result is an intriguing and often amusing game of Indian poker where nobody stands a chance of winning.

The clever set, a series of flat, square platforms painted red, blue, and yellow to simulate a Mondrian painting, has not been put to its best use. The pieces break apart and rotate to create a number of varied playing spaces, theoretically eliminating any need to move furniture about. Unfortunately, director Ted Strickland (making his first foray into directing after taking over the helm at Theatre Memphis) has his actors leave the stage between each and every scene and wastes valuable time fussing with the set dressing. With a space this versatile and mobile, no actor (save the bartender) ever needs to leave the stage. The various pieces could, with only a bit of consideration, be broken apart and recombined with the actors still on board, shaving a great deal of time off the performance and upping the dramatic stakes immeasurably. Incorporating the scene shifts into the show by turning the characters into living chess pieces would be far more interesting for the audience than pretending not to see the stagehands bumbling around in the dark during lengthy breaks in the action. The play, far too subtle to endure so many momentum-wrecking blackouts, is saved only by the extreme competence of its strong cast.

Betrayal is at the Little Theatre, Theatre Memphis through January 26th.

A comedy of errors: Sleeping Cat's got it; doesn't know how to use it.

If it could go wrong, it did go wrong at Sleeping Cat Studio's opening of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Doors got stuck, lines got flubbed, and hapless audience members returning from the bathroom suddenly found themselves stranded in the middle of a play they never rehearsed. Yup, it was a disaster -- but one with great potential for turning itself around.

Sleeping Cat's spanking-new theater space is a nice one, but it has some problems which need to be solved. Seats aren't on risers yet so it's tough to see the action if you aren't down front. There's also quite an echo in the uninsulated former garage and it renders actors with less than impeccable diction absolutely unintelligible. Sadly enough, only Sleeping Cat's heaviest hitter, Rick Crowe (in the role of super-salesman Rick Roma), had the skills to consistently overcome such unfortunate acoustics.

Rick Moore (Moss), a seasoned stage vet who can, with the aid of an attentive director, be quite formidable in the right roles and pretty darn good in the wrong ones, spent the evening engaged in garbled histrionics that were cartoonishly over the top, while a mush-mouthed Jim Esposito (Levine) managed to be rather sympathetic in spite of being thoroughly unintelligible.

It was clear that second-time Glengarry director Amy Van Doren paid not a lick of attention to the all-important rhythms of this language- driven play, which, when done correctly, is as precise as an atomic clock. Instead, this black comedy about the horrible costs of being a winner (or "closer," as the case may be) was staged as a series of erratic ejaculations splayed across a seemingly simple set that over time transformed itself into an impassible obstacle course for the struggling actors, who, in spite of everything, kept slugging away like champs.

Though this meaty play was served up a little too rare, Sleeping Cat Studio is a versatile space where a fledgling company can learn and grow. If the company can attract more actors of Crowe's caliber by selecting plays like Glengarry and Quills, they might prove to be players yet.

Glengarry Glen Ross is at Sleeping Cat Studio through February 2nd.

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