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Going Nowhere 

Too wacky for its own good, Dark Ride rolls to a halt

If you weld togethera broken Zippo lighter, a rusted spring, and a broken doll's head, you create a junk sculpture that might mean something to someone. But when you do the rough equivalent of that in a play, you'd better have a tighter focus on your materials and objective.

In convergence-continuum's Dark Ride, now at the Liminis, playwright Len Jenkin never puts down his virtual acetylene torch. He impulsively fuses disparate human oddments hoping someone will look at it all and find profundity ... or at least a passing thought. Unfortunately, junk art often ends up looking like what it is: a collection of junk.

This almost 30-year-old script shows its age, relying on a gaggle of weirdos to draw attention and trigger a gasp in the audience. Sorry, Len, the freaks have gone pro over the past three decades, and your crew can't compete. Despite a couple of interesting performances, along with some clever staging by director Geoffrey Hoffman, this is less a dark ride than a dim slide into irrelevance.

Composed of many stories that continually restart, denying any sense of flow or continuity, the script is often self-indulgent hash. There's the nerdy translator laboring over an ancient Chinese text owned by Mr. Zendavesta, an occult-addicted oculist who dresses funny and has a publishing company.

Then there's the thief who steals a gem from a jeweler, who also dresses funny. The jeweler pals around with an Army general, and they both kidnap the thief's girlfriend to lure the thief to an oculist convention in Mexico where they can grab the heisted stone. Don't forget the sideshow barker lugging around John Wilkes Booth's supposed mummified remains. And there's Mrs. Lammle, who compulsively collects examples of everyday coincidences. And who dresses funny.

In a search for meaning here, one could attempt to connect Jenkin's interest in the detritus of pop culture and overheated pulp-movie yarns with his musings on the randomness of events. But that's a lot of heavy lifting to ask of an audience if we're not getting a program credit.

Amid this load of slag, Clyde Simon manages to have fun with his heavily accented jeweler (remembering an old love who ditched him, he recalls "her schmell was everywhere"). Stuart Hoffman adds some laughs as Ed, who is coincidentally involved with Edna (a spot-on Sarah Kunchik), the rough and sexy dame who runs an aquarium.

Although she dials up too much zany at times, Lucy Bredeson-Smith scores a couple of amusing scenes, as Mrs. Lammle recounts curious coinky-dinks. And even if his face is often covered by an eye-doctor's viewfinder, Michael Regnier as Mr. Zendavesta clearly describes his character's worldview ("We live on the inner surface of a shell"), although the play never explains why that idea matters.

Other performances either lack specificity or overreach. Curt Arnold seems tentative as the Translator, blurring more than a few line readings. As Margo, Erin Scerbak never finds her hook and seems to be on the outside looking in. Christian Prentice is inconsistent as the Thief, not making it clear what he's after, and Cliff Bailey fails to nail any of the many possible takes on the gruff military dude, making him more generic than General.

Still, director Hoffman inventively uses the Liminis' small stage, and the scene where the actors portray various historical figures in Ed's wax-museum tableaux is sharp and clever. The rest of the show needs that kind of imagination, plus a much faster pace that — like the best funhouse rides — whips you through the turns so fast you can't see the wires holding up the falling crates.

A lack of linear storytelling isn't the problem here; Cleveland Public Theatre's current productions of Wanderlust and Open Mind Firmament each meander but find a firm foundation outside conventional plotting. Rather, there has to be artistic discipline exerted, either by the playwright or the director, to keep such omni-directional efforts on task.

But if you try to cover it all up with wacky voices and lots of exaggerated costumes, what you end up with is just a slow ride down a dark, dead-end street.

Send feedback to scene@clevescene.com.

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