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Creditors and Playing with Fire
by Johan August Strindberg
directed by Leo Cabranes-Grant
at the Cabot House Underground Theater
through November 21
Seeing the two one-acts at Cabot House this week is like eating lunch at the Union. In both places, you have to suffer through a boring, annoying wait before you're served up some half-decent fare.
At Cabot House, the boring, annoying wait is Creditors, a play written by the Swedish dramatist Johan August Strindberg in 1888. It's about a submissive artist (Patrick Harlan), his wife (Taimi Barty) and her dominating ex-husband (Ronnie Hernandez), all of whom take their respective actors' real names. With his marriage in trouble, Pat turns to Ronnie, his new and best male friend, for advice and consolation. But Pat doesn't know that Ronnie is his wife's ex and has his own designs on Taimi.
"Creditors unfolds its plot in a direct, uninterrupted, concise way," read the program notes. Right. And the lunch lines in the Union are efficient. Creditors, in fact, opens with an interminable and flat dialogue between Pat and Ronnie. It then moves on to interminable and flat dialogues between Pat and Taimi and, finally, Taimi and Ronnie. All that action in just under two hours.
Hernandez does play a convincingly manipulative Ronnie, able to control Pat and, to a lesser extent, Taimi. And Barty's Taimi is seductive, passionate and alluring.
The big problem is Harlan, whose character stands at the center of Creditors for the first two-thirds of the play. But Harlan delivers Pat's emotional lines with an incredible lack of feeling. "Your words are cutting me like knives," he deadpans to Taimi. And those are just the lines that are comprehensible, since Harlan tends to swallow syllables and sometimes whole words. He also spends too much time nervously fondling both his wife--he speaks a good number of lines directly into her stomach--and his champagne glass--one of the few props in the spartan set.
The fault is not all Harlan's though. The production is crippled from the beginning by a meandering, esoteric, overlong script. And Cabranes-Grant's direction--what little is apparent in the performance--doesn't make Creditors more interesting or understandable. As the play winds on, it becomes harder and harder even to care what happens to the love triangle.
Just like lunch at the Union, though, suffering through the wait is rewarded by what, at the time, seems like deliverance. Playing with Fire, the second of the one-acts, benefits immeasurably from the simple fact that it is not Creditors.
Also written by Strindberg and directed by Cabranes-Grant, Playing With Fire is the farcical story of a married couple, the husband's parents, the wife's lover, and a female servant whom every man on stage wants to bed. The couple's marriage has lost its passion. Kerstin (Emily Hsu) has fallen for the itinerant Axel (Paul Vietzen), while Knut (Alexander Franklin) spends a considerable amount of time in the garden with the servant Adele (Maria Padilla). Knut's father, played by a singularly hilarious Andrew Sean Kuan, divides his time reciting obscure biblical proverbs, trying to woo Adele and attempting to foil the nascent love affair between Kerstin and Axel. Knut's mother (Eleanor Zoe Kincaid) frames the play, speaking only at the beginning and end.
Fortunately, Playing With Fire is far lighter fare than Creditors. It's an off-beat, fun show. While the script is less than compelling, the acting is uniformly outstanding. Kuan's bumbling, over-the-hill father is spectacular. Hsu and Vietzen make Kerstin and Axel's affair believable, though their kissing scene is a bit frenetic. And as Knut, Franklin is downright bizarre in an appealing, homey way.
Cabranes-Grant's direction also improves in Playing with Fire. There is more movement--and more of the movement makes sense--in the second one-act. One pleasantly irreverent decision is to have the characters clap following each other's more intense conversations.
Those in the audience who survive Creditors and decide to stay for Playing With Fire will be rewarded with entertaining theater. But a better strategy would be to show up at Cabot House at 10 p.m., after the two long hours of Creditors have passed.
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