It's difficult to write a negative review of a play when the theater company presenting it is in the midst of a life-or-death capital campaign to keep their building and their theater itself. So let's begin with this: The convergence-continuum theater company richly deserves to continue its existence, so if you can afford to contribute money to their urgent fundraising effort, you should visit their website at convergence-continuum.org. And please be generous.
Con-con has earned a respected place in the theater community for their risky and bold choices of plays. And when they hit, their productions are second to none in Northeast Ohio. Of course, no theater bats 1.000, and this Tremont group's current production is, unfortunately, an example of theater gone wrong on multiple levels.
The slug line for the generically titled Like I Say by Len Jenkin is "a bizarre comedy." If only. Due to a woefully wit-deprived script (many punch lines rely on the unexpected use of the word "fuck" for their humor), slack direction and less than inventive acting, this production is a long (two-and-a-half hour) journey to exactly nowhere. And not nearly as bizarre as it should be.
Some of the problems begin with Jenkin's convoluted script, which collects a group of eccentric characters in a rundown joint, the Hotel Splendide, somewhere in coastal America. It is there that a young and dissipated writer, Isaiah, pads around in his bathrobe spouting narration from one of his opuses, while being attended to by his assistant Rose. For her part, Rose spends her time getting freebie tattoos from another hotel resident, Mr. Schwarzberg (a game Robert Hawkes). They are watched over by the hotel's landlady Helena (Lauren B. Smith) and a gofer dubbed Little Junior. Helena clearly has a soft spot for Isaiah, for no apparent reason. And then the whole group is introduced to an elderly couple, Leon and Tanya Vole, a Eurotrash pair of puppeteers and con artists who show up on the hotel's porch.
Jenkin is trying to be ridiculous and profound at the same time, focusing on a weary sampling of humanity at the world's end and weaving in a story Isaiah is writing about Coconut Joe (an intermittently amusing Robert Branch, whose perplexed expression often seems like a comment on the show itself). Joe is a buyer for a cookie company and is on a worldwide hunt for the perfect shredded coconut. This subplot, a tortured metaphor for the quest for personal fulfillment and hope, is performed in four extended cutaways from the "action" at the Hotel, adding another layer of nonsense to the proceedings.
It is conceivable that this script could be entertaining or at least diverting on some level, but not with the current cast — most of whom are called upon to play multiple roles —and not as presently directed. Tyson Douglas Rand, an accomplished local director who has helmed some fine productions in the past, seems lost in the ozone on this one. Scenes that should clip by with speed and antic energy slowly plod, some so lethargically that one actually loses the characters' train of thought.
To some degree, Rand also has to shoulder responsibility for performances that are demonstrably unequal to the task at hand. As Isaiah, Logan Smith swans about with a dreamy look in his eye, but that's about as far as his characterization goes, never looking beneath the physical mannerisms for a character hook. As his quasi-nurse Rose, Linda Sekanic plays the attitude of the moment but with a similar disconnect to any underlying idea about who this woman really is.
Two of the roles that have the most stage time are the Voles, and sadly Clyde Simon and Marcia Mandell struggle in their attempts to make these folks interesting. As written, Leon and Tanya offer the opportunity for some gloriously over-the-top characterizations. But due to a pervasive hesitancy on lines and a lack of imagination and risk-taking, this pair of juicy characters comes across as boring and a bit pathetic. For instance, the short puppet show they put on for the hotel denizens is rather agonizing, until a prop gag at the end finally elicits a chuckle.
In the smaller speaking role of Little Joe, the stuttering hotel gofer who supposedly attended college, August Scapelli often is blankly smiling and grinning, as if he had just wandered in from rehearsing a bit part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at some other theater.
Add to those problems the fact that the production feels unusually sloppy, with scene changes looking unrehearsed as people are often moving to their assigned spots when the lights come up. Indeed, everything about Like I Say feels undercooked and lazily executed. This is a play that is actually begging for a high-concept treatment, something or anything to lift the randomness of the script onto a different level.
Instead, this con-con show tries to take itself semi-seriously. And that turns this kludge of a "bizarre comedy" into a semi-disaster.
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