The current Chinchilla House Theater presentation of playwright and prize-winning poet Robert Daseler’s Dragon Lady, playing June 9-12 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, never really catches fire. It is only the show’s third production ever, and its first outside of California, according to director Carl Martin. So, if you try to Google Dragon Lady, you’ll come up with a whole lot of nothing.

Comparisons of the directorial and actors’ choices in both previous productions would be interesting, because Dragon Lady fails to come to life in the present production. Whether the chief culprit is the script, the director, or the actors is difficult to determine without benchmarks.

Especially in the first act, Cynthia de Miranda plays the title character, Margo, like a California clone of sawed-off chain-smoking New York humorist Fran Lebowitz (Metropolitan Life). But Margo spews out tons of sarcasm, but not an ounce of wit to redeem it.

Dubbed “dragon lady” for her waspish tongue and utter disregard for the feelings of the targets of her putdowns, Margo is still supposed to be catnip to men. Instead, with minimal makeup and her hair pulled back severely to deglamorize her further, De Miranda comes off as an icon for the Feminist Dating Network, especially in the first act.

Given her steady monologue of castrating comments, it is little wonder that her marriage to Alex (Derrick Ivey) is on the rocks. He is a public relations practitioner, going through the motions in a soul-killing dead-end job working for a local school system in California; she is a writer. He seems to be angry all the time, even without her there to push all his hot buttons, one after the other, on a daily basis.

When Alex finally has the opportunity to take a much better job at double his present salary in Massachusetts, Margo announces that she is not leaving California. Can this marriage be saved? Do we care?

By painting only in primary colors, director Carl Martin deprives his principal characters of a great deal of audience sympathy. She is scornful; he is belligerent. They are nobody’s definition of a fun middle-aged couple; yet they have friends, middle-aged Paul (Greg Paul) and his much younger wife Nan (Alisha Wolf), who seem to relish having Margo insult them and watching Margo and Alex lob insults at each other.

Paul is a drunk with an inexplicable yen to slip between the sheets with Margo. Nan is a naïf who is seemingly oblivious to Margo’s cutting comments towards her. Indeed, Nan tries to cozy up to the dragon lady, as if the wife of your husband’s best friend is someone you have to cultivate at all costs.

Last Saturday night, the first act of Dragon Lady was excruciating, with one-note performances (Margo bitchy, Alex hostile, Paul inebriated, and Nan clueless). Act II was better, because the cast finally began to add color and contrast to their heretofore monochromatic characterizations. Which is something that they should try in Act I.

Derrick Ivey is one of the Triangle’s finest actors, so his two-dimensional performance here is particularly disappointing. Cynthia de Miranda, too, is capable of bigger and better things. When she lets her hair down, figuratively and literally, she becomes closer to the character of Margo, as the script describes her, than the unmitigated Medusa that she is presently playing.

Greg Paul and Alisha Wolf are less effective, but then their characters are little more than stereotypes of an alcoholic middle-aged philanderer and his young trophy wife who discovers, too late, that her husband and his middle-aged friends have important things in common that she will never be able to fathom.

What can director Carl Martin do, at this point, to rescue Dragon Lady? He could better modulate the emotional Sturm und Drang of Act I and give the acid-tongued Margo a frisson of sexiness in the first act to counterbalance her harpyish behavior. Instead of envisioning these four characters as sitcom-type stereotypes, shouting at each other for comic effect, Martin needs to dig deeper and more thoroughly explore what holds these two seemingly mismatched couples together, and not just what threatens to tear them apart.

Chinchilla House Theater presents Dragon Lady Thursday-Saturday, June 9-11, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, June 12, at 3:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or Manbites Dog Theater:

PREVIEW: Chinchilla House Theater Dragon Lady Asks What Keeps a Couple Together Despite Their Differences

by Robert W. McDowell

Chinchilla House Theater will present Dragon Lady by playwright and poet Robert Daseler June 2-12 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, as part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices Series. Daseler is the recipient of the first annual Richard Wilbur Poetry Award for his first collection of poems, Levering Avenue: Poems (1998).

On its web site, Manbites Dog asks, “What keeps a couple together when their lives seem to diverge sharply 16 years into their marriage? Dragon Lady centers around one tumultuous week in the marriage of Margo and Alex as they try to find an answer.”

Durham actor, director, playwright, and teacher Carl Martin will direct a cast that includes Derrick Ivey, Cynthia De Miranda, Greg Paul, and Alisha Wolf.

Ivey and Martin recently starred as disgraced and drunken President Richard Nixon and his sober but treacherous Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, respectively, in Manbites Dog’s award-winning production of Nixon’s Nixon. Locally, Martin has directed One Noble Journey for Manbites Dog and Cymbeline for Shakespeare & Originals of Chapel Hill.

Martin also directed Macbeth for Shenandoah Shakespeare of Staunton, Virginia. While touring for several years with Shenandoah Shakespeare, he played Julius Caesar, Sir John Falstaff, and Petruchio. He also is the author of “Kissing Scene,” a one-act play about two acting students who cannot rehearse their kissing scene for an upcoming class because they break character and argue after every kiss.

Derrick Ivey is also one of the Triangle’s leading actors, directors, and designers. He was recently named director of The Durham Savoyards, Ltd. He previously served for 10 years as director of theater programs for The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and as artistic director of the center’s community-theater program.

Cynthia De Miranda, Greg Paul, and Alisha Wolf are also familiar faces to Triangle audiences.

Chinchilla House Theater presents Dragon Lady Thursday-Saturday, June 2-4 and 9-11, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, June 5 and 12, at 3:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or Manbites Dog Theater: