Consider the two plays in The Seven Deadly Plays series currently showing at St. Pete’s [email protected] The first, Psalm of Bernadette or Sloth, is, with one exception, poorly performed, and comes across as trivial, amateur and not worth an audience’s consideration. The second, Bed Bugs or Wrath, is wonderfully acted and registers as suspenseful, mind-stretching; well worth the price of admission. Together, the two plays by Stephen Riordan teach that even a great script can be ruined by bad performances. And a fine play’s merits are only magnified by top actors’ skills.
To start with the more successful work, Bed Bugs or Wrath is about Walter, a lonely middle-aged man, and Simon, the hustler he brings to his home. Walter’s wife has recently died of pancreatic cancer, and this has freed the widower to experiment with gay sex. He asks Simon to go slow, to talk about his background, and the younger man finally admits that he was sexually abused as a child. These reminiscences makes Simon hostile, though, and eventually a limit is reached: The encounter turns violent. But Walter, it turns out, isn’t exactly who we thought he was, and Simon too has an importance we couldn’t at first guess. Helping us understand the unexpected climax of the play are flashbacks and fantasy scenes involving Walter, his wife, Alyssa, and son Myles. At the end, it all comes together — a terrible logic has been unfolding before our eyes, its full meaning only clear at the very last.
Making this devious spectacle riveting are the splendid performances of Norman Naudain as Walter and Andrew Deeb as Simon. Naudain’s Walter is — or seems — a man with just enough will to take home a jaded prostitute, but not enough courage to see the encounter through to its finale. He’s alternately adamant and tentative, determined and uncertain, and his contradictions are all the more impressive because they explain not only the person we think we’re seeing early in the play, but the one we discover at the drama’s end. Deeb as Simon is consistently self-confident, wised-up beyond his years, and eager to get right to sex, take his money, and go home. Pushed too far, he’s dangerous, as ready to take revenge on a stranger as on the men who first abused him. In smaller roles, Caroline Jett as Alyssa and Chase Adin as Myles are adequate, but they don’t really have enough stage time to make much impact, and their relationship with each other, as written, isn’t entirely convincing. Still, this is Walter and Simon’s show, and Riordan’s writing, potently interpreted by Naudain and Deeb, holds us rapt from first moment to last.
The accompanying play, Song of Bernadette or Sloth, is about two roommates: Andy, a stoner who works at some sort of theme park, and Matthew, a straight-arrow who labors as an attorney. As the play begins, we find Matthew unpersuasively hiding ,The Book of Mormon, sent to him by his mother, and possibly the cause of his growing sense that there’s something evil in his recent legal work. Slacker Andy makes light of Matthew’s anxieties, and is mostly interested in a mysterious visitor who’s coming to their apartment and who might be a woman. That visitor turns out to be another attorney, Bernadette, and we’re supposed to find in her transaction with Matthew the explanation of his, and his roommate’s, significance.
But we don’t, and the acting of the two men is clearly at fault. Gerald Ramsberger as Andy and Jeff Klein as Matthew seem to be fledgling performers. Watching Ramsberger address the audience when he should be turned to Klein, watching Klein act his anxiety with overdone gestures, we’re reminded that good actors are magicians of the real, wizards who deceive us into believing there’s no deception. The third performer in this one-act drama — the intriguing Dana Kovar as Bernadette — has some of this magic, so there’s at least one character to think about. But even her performance can’t salvage a play that depends mostly on the two males.