Fore Play

The latest from American Stage makes it halfway to greatness

click to enlarge SPACE FACE: Maybe the astronaut has my 9-iron? - BETH REYNOLDS
SPACE FACE: Maybe the astronaut has my 9-iron?

Watching Golf With Alan Shepard is a complicated experience: Half the time you're noticing how daring and original the play is, and the other half you're regretting its flat jokes and flatter characters.

It would be easy to say that the play's defects matter most - that the script wants to be hilarious, but mostly comes off as tepid; that it wants to be surrealist, but mostly comes off as eccentric; that it wants to be theological, but has nothing of note to say about God, faith or creation.

But then, every few minutes - just when you've decided you're wasting your time - author Carter W. Lewis tells a terrifically funny story, or reels off some genuinely eloquent dialogue, or offers a privileged look into a troubled human soul.

Then you think: Hey, this is special. This is rare, this is magical. At which point a pallid, stupid joke comes along and ruins the whole mood. Followed by a gem. Followed by a clunker. Followed by pure lyricism. Followed by rank sentiment.

At least the story of Alan Shepard is easy to follow. We're witnesses to a foursome of elderly golfers as they face off in a match made acrid by long acquaintance. The sportsmen include Griff, a cantankerous old stinkpot who hates tennis players and most of the rest of humanity; Larkin, a defrocked priest whose crime was to throw aside his celibacy for a three-day affair with a 19-year-old girl; Ned, a widower who can't stop searching for his deceased wife, and who mysteriously has become an absurdly successful golfer; and Milt, a mild, gloomy soul who refuses to play the 16th hole because that's where his dear brother Kenny keeled over and died.

As the play begins, Milt and Griff are on one team, Ned and Larkin are on the other, and the stakes are Larkin's continued presence at the golf course (Griff wants him out) and Griff's immortal soul (Larkin wants it in tennis shorts). We only see a few drives, a few birdies and bogeys, but we're present as Griff rages against life and the three other men, as Larkin pleads with God to return to him, Ned seeks his dead wife, and Milt tries to live in the shadow of late brother Kenny.

From time to time, dramatic realism gives way to something dreamlike - as when Ned imagines the three other men, sporting angel wings, singing "Blue Moon," or when a suited-up astronaut arrives with a message from the Great Beyond.

But there are also too many fizzles: repeated intercom announcements about a Retriever making mischief on the golf course, Griff's relentless and eventually tiresome negativity, Ned's meaningless potshots at the state of Indiana, and finally - most disappointingly - the message that the portentous astronaut has to offer.

If author Lewis had more consistent taste, Alan Shepard might have been a wise and winning meditation on the mysteries of aging and death. And it is that, to a degree - when it's not about inessential jokes and tedious running gags.

Fortunately, the American Stage production is usually first-class even when the script isn't. Two of the four actors - Joe Parra as Milt, and Bob Heitman as Larkin - turn in impeccable work. John Conlon as Ned starts out strong but loses focus, and Warren Hammack as Griff never solves the problem of his role's repetitions.

David M. Fillmore's unusual set is divided into separate areas for the Tee, the Green, and the Clubhouse Patio, and features a wall-high scorecard all along one side of the playing area. There's also a small screen, along the back of the stage, on which words ("The Front Nine") and pictures (clouds) are projected.

If you're wondering how the actors manage to drive a golf ball across a small stage, there's a simple answer: with imaginary golf balls. But director Brendan Hughes manages his actors so expertly, we never doubt that we're watching four bona fide golfers in an actual match. Finally, Ami Cianci's costumes are always credible - and why wouldn't visionary Ned wear red tennis shoes?

I'm not sorry I sat through the two acts of Alan Shepard; the play may have many defects, but it also has real strengths, not the least of which is an existentialist concern for the deepest questions about this life and the next one. Now if someone can convince author Lewis to be more fastidious - to drop the unnecessary one-liners, to let his humor grow organically out of his characters and plot - he may turn out to be more than the Neil Simon of the Links.

When he's not going for a cheap laugh, Lewis clearly possesses real intelligence and compassion. I'd like to see the play he writes when he trusts those virtues more.

Like the intercom says, "Golf has a way of exposing a man."

And what this round of golf exposes is an author who doesn't yet have the courage of his best instincts.

Paul and Gabe and Kegan and Elsa. The acting is erratic, the singing is amateur, but John Fisher's The Joy of Gay Sex is such a witty, efficient script, you can almost overlook the flaws in this Gypsy Productions effort. The focus of the plot is Paul, an opinionated, irascible graduate student living in San Francisco and writing a dissertation on the treatment of gays in the Bible. He meets a closeted librarian named Gabriel, one thing leads to another, and soon he and Gabriel are lovers.

Meanwhile, his friend Kegan, a "budding lesbian," falls desperately in love with Gabriel's fellow librarian Elsa. Complicating matters are Paul's former lover Dr. Corey Cabinoff (winner of every award ever devised by humankind) and Kegan's former partner Christian; but eventually everyone pairs off, goes to the opera, dresses in drag, dances, sings and argues. There are almost 30 scenes, but the story moves forward speedily, impelled by writer Fisher's facility with rapid-fire dialogue.

Four of the actors turn in good work. In the lead role of Paul, Michael Titone is credibly argumentative, short-tempered and emotionally needy. As first-time lesbian Kegan, Joleen Wilkinson is funny and charming; Nicole Paris Williams plays her lover Elsa with ingratiating innocence. The other standout is Alisha Campton in the small part of Jane.

But Christian Maier never convinces us that Gabe has anything like three dimensions; Bill Bryant as Professor Cabinoff doesn't display a tincture of intellect; Tim Kowalewski as Darryl just looks uncomfortable on stage; and Chuck McTague as Christian is all facade and no recognizable humanity.

The script calls for several actors to sing familiar standards ("The Way You Look Tonight" and "I'll Be Seeing You," among others), but none of these performers has a professional-quality voice, and the result is some embarrassing crooning.

The production does have other virtues, though: The colorful set, by Tony Buglio and Trevor Keller, is one of Gypsy Productions' best; Dan Gray's costumes are always right for these just-getting-by students; and Keller's direction makes good use of the small Suncoast Theatre stage.

Gypsy's still got a ways to go, but more and more its productions are looking first-rate.

Next problem to solve: casting.

Then maybe we can talk about The Joy of Live Theater.

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