Performance Issues

The stars fail to shine in Suncoast Theater's Gemini.

click to enlarge YARD WORK: Francis (Harry Richards, left) and - Randy (Christian Maier) talk while Judith (SaRa Schaback) looks on. - VALERIE TROYANO
YARD WORK: Francis (Harry Richards, left) and Randy (Christian Maier) talk while Judith (SaRa Schaback) looks on.

There's not a lot of purposeful action in Albert Innaurato's Gemini, but there is a lot of activity among its seven characters. What this means, among other things, is that this is a play that depends on acting to hold our attention. When these characters eat, drink, make sexual overtures, shout out windows or run around manically, we need not only to believe in their humanity but to find it satisfying in itself, plot or no plot. So if, for example, Fran Geminiani takes a few minutes to reminisce with Bunny Weinberger about their long-ago sexual encounter, we need to find the two actors so skillful at what they do that this largely inconsequential conversation grabs our emotions and doesn't let go. Or when Fran tells his son Francis to stop refusing the gifts offered him, we need to feel not that this is a key to the play's theme (it's not), but that it stirringly sums up Fran and Fran's hard life.

Again and again in Gemini, author Innaurato provides opportunities for fine thespians to show their stuff, and if there's not a lot of conventional narrative, well, it just shouldn't matter. With the right actors in these parts, this comedy should be satisfying.

Unfortunately, the current Gypsy Productions version of Gemini at the Suncoast Theatre is missing the right actors - at least in three crucial cases. Harry Richards as Francis, Michael Crockett as his father Fran, and Christian Maier as his friend Randy simply don't convey the complexity that these pivotal roles demand, and the effect is to make us doubt the entire enterprise.

Further weakening the show, Dan Khoury's direction is erratic and even sloppy, meaning that we seldom are able to suspend our disbelief long enough to be moved by the stage action. This is amateurish drama, often no better than a poorly-staged community production, and only rescued from time to time by two talented performers: SaRa Schabach as Randy's sister Judith and Derek Baxter as Herschel. Two other performers are almost right - Carolyn Zaput as Bunny and Francine Wolf as Lucille - but almost isn't enough in such a troubled production. This is a show bound to disappoint any serious theatergoer.

Insofar as Gemini has a central narrative, it's about the sexual confusion of Francis Geminiani, a Harvard student at home in south Philadelphia during a school break. Into Francis' backyard - with a tent, no less - come his sometime girlfriend Judith and her brother Randy.

Francis keeps rebuffing Judith's sexual advances, and finally announces to her that he thinks he's gay. Moments later, Judith realizes that Francis is in love with straight Randy. She tells Randy - who's not shocked - and finally Francis and Randy try to make some sense of the situation. At the end of the play, Judith and Randy head back to Boston, leaving Francis to decide what course his life - and sexuality - will take.

Now, all of the stage time devoted to this story probably doesn't amount to, oh, 20 minutes. During the rest of the two hours, we meet the denizens of this south Philly venue, including Fran; Francis' earthy, macho father; Bunny, Fran's wacky, loud and vulgar neighbor; Herschel, Bunny's asthmatic, genius son; and Lucille, Fran's superstitious, food-picking lover.

We see a lot of eating, a birthday party gone bad, Bunny's abortive suicide attempt and Herschel's slightly more successful one. We find out about Bunny's lawsuit, Herschel's obsession with subways and trolleys, Lucille's daughter who's a dental technician, and son who's at Yale.

We should, in an ideal production, come away from the play with a sense of the life being expressed by all these characters - the intensity, the tenacity, the red-blooded, stubborn, noisy love of existence itself.

As it is, the only actor who gets this theme across is Zaput as Bunny. She's a gifted comic actor, but the very messiness of the whole production detracts from a role that should be uniquely slovenly. Still, she has her moments: When forcing Randy to grab her breasts, or shouting to heaven that she won her case, this is a woman whose approach to life is unmediated by reason.

If Zaput had found Bunny's pathos too - the pathos of a sexual being who has long gone without a partner - this might have been a successful portrayal, even in the midst of a lackluster production. As it is, we have to respect Bunny's vigor, even if we can't quite believe in her.

We can believe in Schabach, though. Her excellent performance is the best thing in Gemini: As Judith, she's every bit the intelligent Radcliffe student who can't figure out why her boyfriend's no longer interested; and once she does work it out, she's just as wounded and angry and confused as we'd expect. Sympathetic too is Derek Baxter as Herschel; asthmatic and epileptic, trying to survive in a household run by the unpredictable Bunny, he comes across with an unexpected dignity, even a tincture of heroism.

Finally, Wolf as Lucille just needs work on her timing. She looks and sounds like the Italian widow she's supposed to be, but too often she stands outside the prevailing rhythm of a scene. The fault may not be hers: The momentum of this production is so inconsistent, any actor would find it hard to know where to dive in. And since Lucille figures mostly as Fran's companion - and since Fran is so far from being the Italian earth-father that he's supposed to be - Wolf just may be the victim of an impossible situation.

At least the set is attractive. As designed by Trevor Keller, Richard Traylor and Khoury, it's a funky, fun construction representing the back of some attached row houses. Helen Parramore's costumes are fine in every case, and the lighting, also by Keller, Traylor and Khoury, is just right. I'm glad to see that Gypsy has been holding to a high standard of design recently. There was a time when it looked like that standard had been forgotten. Now, for several shows in a row, it's been faithfully respected.

Still, in the live theater, casting is destiny. Three terribly important roles fail to impress us here, and they nearly sink the whole production. Gypsy's a professional company, which means, among other things, that we expect top-notch acting in every one of its shows. Anything less than the best is going to cause trouble, time and again.

The result is an unpersuasive, third-rate Gemini.

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