Sunday, May 21, 2017

Who You Gonna Call?

 Darren Marshall, Andrew Gall, and Laura Tratnik in Malverse

The Magnetic Theatre
Malverse by John Crutchfield
Through June 3, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

Malverse, John Crutchfield's new play, is a puzzle piece. From its faintly ominous title through its ghost-story first act to its disturbingly ambiguous ending, it teases us with little mysteries.

The play is  premiering at the Magnetic Theatre in the River Arts District through June 3.
Like all good ghost stories, Malverse starts in everyday reality. A young husband and wife, Tom and Jennifer, are finishing breakfast in their kitchen. They chatter about the best way to get rid of the woodchucks which are destroying their newly planted garden.

Jenn favors humane trap-and-relocate. Tom is ready for a gun. "Never trust the Animal Kingdom," he says. "They have no character. They have no morals. Time for a little good old-fashioned frontier-style genocide."

Tom, played by Andrew Gall, is an affable loudmouth, a little volatile, convinced he knows what's best. He is a bit of a bumbler, prone to misplacing his smartphone. Laura Tratnik's Jenn, seriously pregnant, is the patient, even passive wife. "Do what you want," she says. "Just don't let me see it. Don't let me hear it, don't tell me about it, I don't want to know."

Gall and Tratnik portray Tom and Jenn with an easy, quick rapport. We first see them in their construction-site kitchen—tools piled in one corner, doors only roughly framed, paint swatches on unfinished walls. A tiny refrigerator and a microwave are apparently the only working appliances. (The playwright also designed the set.)

We soon learn that the house is a bank foreclosure with leaning walls and a sinking foundation. The playwright gives this attractive couple some well-crafted, amusing banter that might be the lead-in to a comedy like The Money Pit

But this house may also have a ghost. Jenn keeps hearing a coughing sound she is convinced is coming from the basement. Sure enough, they discover a murder was committed here. Is this Amityville meets Money Pit?

Crutchfield, a Western North Carolina native, who works from both Asheville and Berlin, is a philosophical playwright, as well as a very literate one. (In his non-playwriting life, he's a poet and a translator of German literature.) He wraps his ghost story around a social drama. This wrecked house is in a deteriorating African American neighborhood. These urban homesteaders see themselves as pioneers of gentrification. White gentrification. 

Hefty issues

Crutchfield threads hefty issues into his story: gun rights and wrongs, racial prejudices among both blacks and whites, PTSD, the criminal justice system, Mexican immigrants, even bank predatory lending practices. Two characters carry these dark matters: Tom's contractor buddy, a gun-totin' racist and Iraq veteran named Dave, and an amiable elderly African American neighbor, Mrs. Wilkins.

Occasionally, you may feel that neither they nor this slender story can support all this thematic weight.

Both have their own parts in the puzzle. Is the kindly Mrs. Wilkins up to no good by telling Jenn about the murder in the house and about her black neighbors' resentment?

And when Dave pulls out a concealed pistol and later gives Tom lessons in using a shotgun, is the playwright following the Chekhov rule that a weapon displayed in the first act must go off by the end of the play?

The accomplished Darren Marshall gives Dave a cuddly menace that is both appealing and abhorrent. He energizes every scene he's in. Valeria Watson's Mrs. Wilkins signals us with her eyes a little too much that she may not be what she seems, but the second act vindicates her and deepens her humanity.

The playwright invents a cliffhanger for the end of the first act, when an African American character he calls The Stranger, played by Gary Gaines, makes his first appearance. It's reminiscent of a startling moment in Shining City, a play by the Irish master of spooky playwriting, Conor McPherson, and it's almost as effective.

Full social drama mode

The ghost story that intrigued us in Act One, however, disappears in Act Two. I would reveal too much of the clever plot to say more, except that Crutchfield shifts to full social drama mode. He tries to turn his conflicts of ideas into character conflicts. If he hasn't yet found the magic that makes worthy ideas seem to bubble up from the lives and souls of his people, he definitely makes us think.

Gary Gaines, as The Stranger, shoulders the fundamental puzzles Crutchfield wants us to ponder. Why can't Americans of different races just all get along? Can they even live in close proximity? Gains gives his Stranger a dignified, childlike innocence as he makes a stand for his black privilege against Tom's white privilege.

At the critical moment, Jenn tries to bridge the divide between her husband and this ghostly intruder. Tratnik, an actor of great presence, persuades us with Jenn's goodness of heart, rather than a convincing argument from the playwright. It's a puzzling lapse for a play of ideas.

The trap for an idea playwright is too much talk. As directed by Steven Samuels, the Magnetic's artistic genius loci, the people in Malverse sit and talk a lot. Samuels doesn't give them much lifelike activity to show they really do live here.

And a lot of the talk reads as filler. "Did you ask him? . . Huh? No. . . I think you should. . . .What? . . .There's something . . . Come on. It's not even worth talking about. . . .Well, I think it is. . . . There's something we've been meaning to ask you about, and it's kind of hard to, well . . . it might sound a little. . ."

Crutchfield should take to heart some smart words from a skilled, prolific playwright. "Language is dramatic when spoken in the . . .desperate attempt to make something happen. If something important is riding on the elocutionary outcome of an utterance, if someone stands to win or lose something of great value as a consequence of speech, then we will listen with particular interest . . . When such speech is also compressed, such that the maximum meaning is expressed in the minimum 'space' . . . we have language that is both dramatic and poetic." 

The climactic confrontation between Jenn and Tom might have been the place where sitting and talking would be just the thing. Ibsen showed us how to meld tightly coiled drama with tightly argued debate. “Sit down, Torvald,” Nora says to her husband at the end of A Doll's House, “we have a lot to talk over.” Crutchfield opts for melodrama instead and has the pregnant Jenn collapse.

But just when he appears to be tying up all his plot lines with a sentimental "In spite of everything, people are really good at heart" ending, the playwright pops another puzzle piece. You may like it, if you liked the ending of The Sopranos.

Not the playwright's friend

The set designer hasn't been the playwright's friend. Squeezing a realistic kitchen under construction, a bedroom, a garden, a hospital waiting room, and a strong entrance to a basement onto the Magnetic's shallow stage would flummox even a seasoned designer.

And when the crux of the last scene is a kitchen transformed into a finished showplace  ("I can't imagine ever wanting another kitchen," Jenn says), you know Crutchfield's set designer self wasn't paying attention to what his playwright self was saying.

Full-scale realism in a tiny space on a tiny budget simply doesn't work. It's a lesson the artists at Magnetic Theatre should have learned from their production of Terry Tempest. For a lesson in what does work, they have only to look at the efficient, effective, less-is-more design of their own recent Stupid Fucking Bird.

The others on the design team—Jason Williams for lights, Elisabeth Evans for costumes, Mary Zogzas for sound—give the play and the small stage just what they need: moody lights and music and believable, detailed clothes that change with the passage of time.

So what does the title Malverse mean? "To act in a dishonest or corrupt manner, to commit a breach of confidence; to make a wrong decision," says the Dictionary of the Scots Language. "To act corruptly in a position of trust," says the Oxford English Dictionary. A playwright as word-wise as Crutchfield must know this. But why he uses it for his play we have to puzzle out for ourselves.

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.

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Photo: Rodney Smith@ tempusfugitasheville


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