If You Go to Sarasota ...

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Two prize-winning plays are currently showing in Sarasota. One, a Tony award winner, is an impressive work of writing and acting. The other, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is surprisingly mundane, in spite of some fine performances:

Speak, Memory. Maybe the purpose of family is to baffle us permanently. Consider Charlie Tynan and his father, Nick. Even after Nick's death, Charlie is angry at his "Da," and for a hundred different reasons. He's angry at him for being so obsequious to others, for favoring the Germans in World War II, for interrupting him when he was about to lose his virginity, for refusing to be grateful for the gifts Charlie gave him. But as much as he hates the old guy — "You destroyed me, you know that?" — he can't help but love him also, for enduring 58 years of poverty as a gardener, for quelling Charlie's fears when he was seven years old, for stubbornly insisting on living life his own way. What can you make of this mass of contradictions, the man who raised you, cared for you, insulted and embarrassed you? Can you ever even manage to get him out of your head?

Apparently not, if Hugh Leonard's Tony award-winning Da is to be believed. In this handsome, word-rich play, given a first-rate production by the Asolo Theatre Company, Charlie returns from abroad to Ireland to attend his father's funeral — and discovers that, in his head, his father is alive as ever. And it's not only his Da that Charlie sees in his childhood home — it's also himself as a young man ("that little prick"); his mother; his best friend, Oliver; and the girl called "The Yellow Peril" whom he once dreamed of seducing. Each appears as large as life to Charlie — and to us — and each helps him relive pivotal moments in his life.

There's the day cold Mr. Drumm gave him a coveted job as a filing clerk, the day he confided his deepest fear to his father, the day his mother was treated to a glass of Port at the Royal Marine Hotel, and the day that Da's patroness gave him a humiliatingly small retirement gift. And Charlie doesn't merely witness these memories; he talks to them, chides them, and offers them advice. Sometimes they even talk back to him — and not always politely.

All these mind games are rendered with consummate professionalism by the Asolo company. As the older Charlie, V. Craig Heidenreich is wonderfully wistful, eager to be rid of painful memories but unable to control his thoughts or hold on to his anger. Also superb is John Sterling Arnold as the dour clerk Drumm. And whose views on life are as frozen as the expression on his face. Sharon Spelman is just right as Charlie's long-suffering but feisty mother, and Bruce Roach couldn't be better as Charlie's laconic, vain friend Oliver.

In fact, the only actor who seems even slightly off-target is David S. Howard as Da, and my only complaint about this fine thespian is that he at times garbles his already-slanged-up lines.

Isa Thomas' direction, though, makes every move on stage seem inevitable, and the realistic kitchen set — uncredited in my program — is up to the usual high Asolo standards. This is a production so right in so many details that it takes no detours on its way into the spectator's psyche. Two acts of Da and you'll feel like this life is yours as much as it is Charlie's.

Marriage and Its Discontents. Maybe it was the Pulitzer, won only last year. Or maybe it was being aware of one stunning play by Donald Margulies, The Model Apartment, and a few impressive others: Found a Peanut, Sight Unseen, and Collected Stories. Whatever it was, I walked into Dinner With Friends expecting something special. I knew that the play was about marriage and divorce; and I knew that Margulies was smart enough to make an original statement on even these familiar subjects. The play began, and I waited for the inevitable revelation.

And waited. And waited. And then it was intermission. And then Act Two started, and I waited. And then the play was over.

So what can I tell you? Pulitzer Prize or not, Dinner With Friends is a nice, skillfully written, pleasantly acted drama that won't tell you anything you don't already know. To be more specific: The deep insight of Dinner With Friends is that love, after years of marriage, is not quite as thrilling as at the beginning of a relationship.

Other brainstorms that make the weather map: People describing a crisis tend to tell it from their point of view. We should have all the evidence before we make judgments. Love and hate are more closely related than they may first appear.

And all this is revealed — if that word is appropriate — as we watch a few hours in the life of happily married Gabe and Karen, and troubled Tom and Beth. In fact, the play really gets started when Beth, visiting couple number one, breaks down and admits that her husband is leaving her for a stewardess. Later, Tom offers his side of the story: His lover, in fact, isn't a stewardess but a travel agent. And the divorce is Beth's fault: She's stopped touching him, physically and emotionally. Same divorce, different perspectives. Get it? Events proceed — and, in one case, flash back — until Gabe and Karen audibly wonder: Can marriage survive the practicalities of married life? End of play. Yes, it was better written than most soap operas. But not qualitatively different, not really.

So what about that acting? Well, as usual at FST, all the performers are genuine talents. George Tynan Crowley as Gabe, Susan Greenhill as his wife, Karen, Kathy Danzer as Beth, and J.R. Robinson as Tom all turn in first class performances. Victoria Holloway's direction keeps the actors busy during most conversations. And perhaps the real stars of the evening are Michael Lasswell's ultra-realistic sets, of various well-appointed rooms in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

But is that all there is? Some illustrated platitudes about married love, and not a new message anywhere?

There's a lot of good work here; and still Dinner With Friends is disappointing.

Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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