These Three

Wednesday, November 3, 2004
Phoenix New Times

Stray Cat Theatre has made a name for itself by mounting dicey material and testing untried plays by unknown authors, nearly always triumphantly. And so I wasn't at all surprised to leave [sic], Stray Cat's latest offering, completely charmed and still chuckling as I drove away.

[sic] (the title is a proofreader's mark meant to indicate that a word or phrase that looks or sounds incorrect is not a mistake) concerns a trio of young Manhattanites who live on the third floor of the same apartment building and whose lives overlap in odd places. There's Theo (Joseph Kremer), a classically trained composer who writes themes for amusement park rides. And Babette (Amanda Kochert), a would-be author who's sort of working on a manuscript about famous vocal outbursts of the 20th century. And Frank (Samuel E. Wilkes), who aspires to a career as an auctioneer for which he's preparing by way of a home-study course involving wild tongue-twisters and hilarious book-on-tape monologues.

There's a tiny sliver of story here, mostly hung on the ways in which the trio's lives are entwined. They share a landlady, of course, and all have a mutual friend, the unseen but often-spoken-of Larry, who used to be Frank's lover and who lately has been spending time with Theo's wife, who mysteriously disappeared from his life shortly before the play commences. The conversations and wordplay of these three are the real stars of the show, and are designed to display the smart voice of playwright Melissa James Gibson as much as forward the stories of her oddball characters.

If there's a flaw with [sic], it's that Gibson's voice is so sharply funny in its observations about the way people communicate that her voice is sometimes all we hear. But because this is a play about language and the way we use it, and because it is, thanks to director Ron May, so smartly staged and cleverly acted, I couldn't have cared less that Gibson sometimes shouts down her characters. Her sometimes stilted avant-gardism (characters speak in unison, repeat themselves, or play clich├ęd, Mametesque word games with themselves) sounded like poetry when, for example, Kochert sputtered it at Kremer, whose spring-tight, ironic delivery had me hooting with glee. And really, anyone who can rhapsodize about Betty Botter and her travails with bitter butter with as much aplomb as Wilkes does gets my vote.

As if all the intricate wordplay and double entendre and hyper-comic emoting that came before it wasn't masterful enough, the scene in which Frank washes an imaginary window as Babette and Theo quarrel in her apartment is as brilliantly choreographed as the most intricate dance number. May's restless direction never feels frenetic, and he marries perfectly the movement of his players with the rhythm of Gibson's many monologues. May is aided by Joseph Benesh's splendidly efficient set, which allows us to see through walls and doors and manages to cram three entire apartments and the windows of an adjacent building onto one teeny stage.

That other building, in which the shadows of actors Niki Marinis and Dallas Roberts enact a bitter breakup, provides a compelling contrast to the high comedy of Gibson's story. When these three friends stop to listen to the bickering couple -- when we are, in effect, watching them watching themselves -- the richer, darker themes of the piece drown out the many laughs we've shared, as well as the playwright's tremendous voice.