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Theater Wed Apr 30 2014

Death-Defying Acts Doesn't Live Up to Its Risky Promise

Photo by John C. Oster

Death-Defying Acts is a 1995 set of one-act plays by three brilliant playwrights: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. That would mean an evening of incisive wit, devastating comedy and a twist or two of angst, right? Unfortunately, the new production at Saint Sebastian Players doesn't quite live up to expectations.

In Mamet's The Interview, The Lawyer (Brooks Applegate) is interviewed by The Attendant (Kathryn Haynes) about his life and crimes. The setting is gray, and yes, Kafkaesque. Did he borrow his neighbor's lawnmower and bury it? The Lawyer tries to argue his way out of it. The Attendant ignores him from time to time and relaxes, reading copies of the comic book, Ghost Rider. Ultimately, he is admitted -- or sentenced. His crimes? "You passed the bar, but failed to live forever." The play is occasionally funny but has little of the toughly poetic Mamet dialogue we expect.

In May's Hotline, Ken (Josh Leeper) is a nervous new counselor in a suicide call center. His colleague Marty (Brian Vabulas) and supervisor Dr. Russell (Joe Ogiony) guide him through his first calls.

Dorothy (Michelle Annette) is a hooker who's bad at small talk and doesn't keep good records. "I just don't feel like getting up any more." She's trying to get a suicide hotline number from the telephone company. "Isn't there a number for The Suicide Hotline?" she demands -- and is crushed to find out that it's a coffee shop. She insults everyone from the telephone operator ("Can I speak to someone who isn't Spanish?") to her potential rescuer. Finally, she reaches Ken, who is exhilarated because he has just talked someone off a ledge. Their on-again, off-again conversation includes an interlude with the police as Ken tries to track Dorothy's phone number in this pre-caller-ID era.

The stage is divided in two, to show the call center, with Dorothy's apartment downstage. Lighting defines the changes in conversation. While Dorothy talks (or rants -- she doesn't have much patience with call center psychobabble), Ken is in shadow, miming his side of the conversation.

Hotline is witty and presents a typical Elaine May situation. Leeper and Annette both do a good job of portraying their characters. The play ends without disaster but the 911-call interlude drags on too long.

Central Park West is a story of prototypical Allen Manhattanites. Phyllis (Cortney West), a therapist, calls her friend Carol (Becca Russo) to come over: It's an emergency. The two drink wine prodigiously while Phyllis tells Carol that her husband is leaving her for another woman. Phyllis becomes suspicious that Carol is that woman. Carol denies it, then finally admits it:
"We haven't been sneaking around. We have an apartment."
In the 50s."
"Is it rent-controlled?"

Carol's writer husband Howard (Shawn Hansen) arrives, grieving because he had to put his father in a nursing home. He produces a souvenir: his father's German Luger. (Uh-oh. Chekhov's gun principle. Would Woody Allen really do something that obvious?)

Sam (Tony Vinci), Phyllis' lawyer husband, could fit right into a "Mad Men" episode. He comes home to pack up and we find out he didn't leave Phyllis for Carol. He has a new fiancée: Juliet (Alyson Calder), a very young film editor, just out of college. He argues with Phyllis, then with Carol, then expresses his undying love for Juliet. The gun is eventually used and misfires. Then Sam is shot in the butt.

Director Josh Hurley gets the requisite laughs from his script and cast and generally moves the action along. Death Defying Acts has a lot of laughs; plenty of funny, vulgar one-liners are tossed off. But Central Park West has some mean-spirited lines that feel like Allen's writerly revenge at work on someone.

Lauren Nichols' set design works nicely. With some quick shifts of furniture, drapes and pillows, and Madeline Sellars' lighting, the set is converted from hell to office to living room.

One problem with the whole production is the overworked circus atmosphere. Yes, "death-defying acts" suggests a carnival with risky high-wire acts. Old circus posters decorate the lobby of the church-basement theater. Before the show opens, an old circus film, Here Comes the Circus, is projected across the stage floor. The crew is dressed in circus clown and aerialist costumes while making stage changes. But it's a bit over the top, especially considering the lack of death-defying acts on stage.

Death Defying Acts runs 2.5 hours including an intermission. The Interview (20 minutes) and Hotline (45 minutes) run first; Central Park West is act two. Saint Sebastian Players perform at St. Bonaventure Church, 1641 W. Diversey. The play runs until May 18 with performances at 8pm Friday and Saturday and 2pm Sunday. Tickets are $20 ($10 for seniors) and can be purchased online, by calling 773-404-7922 or emailing

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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