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Call it the Woody Allen syndrome: the compulsive desire to mix comedy with some musings on mortality and modern life. It doesn't always work in Woody's works and it doesn't always work in Bookends, the new play by Matherite John Dorf.
Dorf's comic sense serves him much better than his philosophical nature. From the opening line of the play, "I killed the reference librarian," Dorf displays his absurdist flair. Scott Schwartz's direction aggressively matches that sensibility.
Eric, played by Bill Selig, visits his school library where a mousey lunatic, played by Catherine Robe, has commenced a killing spree. Jane, the schizophrenic killer, holds Eric hostage while a gang of sadistic police threaten to storm the building.
Left to this framework, Bookends would succeed as a darkly comic romp. However, the script's multiple flashbacks aim for a wholly different style of comedy. Rather than the absurdism of the central scenes, the flashbacks try to be witty and biting. They unfortunately fall far short of the rest of the play. More serious than the rest, they interrupt the over-the-top momentum of the hostage scenes.
The worst acting moments occur in the flashbacks. Eric's painful love affair with his Shakespeare professor, also played by Robe, clashes stylistically with the hostage crisis. The two plots and comedic styles simply don't blend as well as they must to warrent including both.
Neither Selig nor Robe handle the transition between plotlines smoothly. Selig is forced to beg and grovel to Robe and the emotional fireworks don't suit him well. His face is expressive but his delivery is awkward. As Susan, Robe resorts to clipped anunciation and a martinet's strut to connvey emotional distance. Despite Robe's best efforts. Susan remains an unplansible caricature of promiscuity and icy reserve. Robe has a much firmer grasp of Susan. Whining, shuffling, and grimacing, Susan amuses an undercurrent of threat.
Jonathan Weinber handles his role as the police captain with droll aplomb. As a portrait of savagery, the captain delightedly lectures on execution and demonstrates on a dog Selig displays appropriate confusion and horror at such antics.
With a minimum of props, the tech crew has created an effective set for differentiating locations. A large cloth wall painted with books represents the library setting. However, the wall rises, falls, bursts, unzips and reseals to denote changes of scene. Schwartz makes full use of this bit of ingenuity to keep the play visually interesting.
Bookends succeeds only when it maintains its comic focus. As a serious exploration of relationships or paranoia it is on less reliable footing. With judicious cutting to emphasize its strong points, Bookends would be a solid comic work rather than a mismatched amalgam of ruminations and jokes.
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