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Since forming in 2012, South Stream Productions' annual January shows have included an admirable string of hard-hitting, thought-provoking presentations, such as Edward Albee's Seascape, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, and Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still. Now, after a one-year hiatus, South Stream is back with a program of lighter, mostly humorous fare.
This Doesn't End Well, a collection of seven one-acts by company co-founder and artistic director Brook North, establishes his comedic credentials and his facility for clever situations. The plays are short (most in the 10-to-15 minute range) and generally fall into the category of comedy sketch, although several have serio-comic twists and one has a truly moving arc. The seven cast members are a combination of veterans and relative newcomers who play multiple roles under North's direction. The bulk of each play is the setup for a surprise ending, allowing little time for character and plot development (with one rewarding exception), making each difficult to discuss without giving away the fun and the twists.
Four of the plays are basic comedies. "Misplaced" follows an academic archeologist and his graduate assistant as they struggle through the bush to locate a lost civilization's sacred temple. But their excitement is dampened by revelations from an unexpected visitor. "Inside Job" concerns businesswoman Beau, who runs illegal poker games in high-class homes. She's discussing what to do about recent robberies with her hot-headed young minion, Handle, when a third party appears to supply some answers. A partitioned workspace provides the setting for "Lunch Break," in which three employees berate co-worker Larry for carping about his job and for his dramatic threats to end it all. He's pushed to the edge when he learns the boss is bringing in a new recruit. Cuddly pets and intergalactic visitors combine in "Clover" for a Saturday Night Live-worthy sketch.
Two one-acts have a Twilight Zone vibe. "Information" has Jules discovering that classmate Alexis works at a mall information desk. He taunts her, doubting her abilities to give out information, but soon gets more information than he bargains for. In "Railbirds," set at a racetrack, down-and-out Steve tries to extract winning tips from expert Gus by divulging his dire financial woes. Cleaning lady Gladys overhears the conversation and offers some advice. The one serious piece, "The Stream," brings on welcome balance with a three-part love story between two women, Veronica and Charlie, in which their bonds are tested and strengthened through their lives' unexpected circumstances.
The female cast members get the best parts and provide the widest range. Julie Oliver's Beau in "Inside Job" exhibited a steel hand in a velvet glove, working her way up to a cold lesson in loyalty. She also supplied nicely varied turns as an alien in "Clover" and the cleaning lady in "Railbirds." Natalie Turgeon made a strong impression for going from a calculating graduate assistant in "Misplaced" and a crass "Lunch Break" co-worker to a hilarious critter in "Clover" and a deeply affecting, stoic Charlie in "The Stream." Katie Barrett brought energetic characterizations to her mysterious information desk employee, feisty office worker, cranky pet owner, and loving same-sex partner.
John Honeycutt, the company's co-founder and manager, provided a well-rounded take on destitute Steve's racetrack pleas, along with a fussily funny archeologist and a seemingly wimpy officemate. Ben Apple made the most of his brief assignments as a young thug, new coworker, animal rescuer, and surprise character in "The Stream." David Thomas offered laugh-making body language and facial expressions as an information seeker, office clown, and exasperated horserace expert, although his line delivery was often too fast and indistinct. Newcomer Lou Campbell's strapping presence and vivid personality gave stature to portrayals of a resort developer, thug-for-hire, office boss, and alien leader, but there's work to be done on smoother line delivery and projection.
North's stage direction had appropriate verve and physicality, knowingly hitting the comedic high points. Opening night had some rough edges, which should smooth out after a few more performances. There were several instances of awkward staging, in which much of the audience in Sonorous Road's shallow, wall-to-wall seating was often blocked from seeing actors' faces while they delivered important dialogue. This was particularly a problem in "Inside Job" (Ben Apple blocking Julie Oliver by often being in front of her, not to her side) and in "Clover" (Lou Campbell towering in front of Oliver). Even the simple staging of "Railbirds" and "The Stream" had times when half of the audience could not clearly see actors' expressions because of an angled railing and bench (both needed to be full front when so close to the extremely wide audience setup).
Technical elements deserved praise for the crew's lightning-quick set changes, Alyssa Petrone's atmospheric lighting (including clever gobo patterns in "Clover"), Will Mikes' ambient sound designs, Rachel McKay's costumes full of character, and Todd Houseknecht's functional set pieces. Stage manager Kelly Mahaffey efficiently coordinated them all.*
Fans of South Stream Productions' past presentations may need to adjust to the more casual, upbeat entertainment of This Doesn't End Well. North's deft humor is evident in everything from his droll writer/director/producer program comments to the unlisted opening sketch spoofing a playwright writing a play about a play. The evening has consistent laughs (and a few teary moments in "The Stream") but the formats and methods used in each play are too similar (unexpected third parties changing things, surprise twists to end the pieces). Some may find themselves wishing "The Stream" had been much longer because of its warm insights and fleshed out characters, and that the evening had been balanced out with more varied material.
This Doesn't End Well continues through Sunday, January 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.