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Hitting the Wall 

A new theater group face-plants with Babes in America.

Those time-lapse videos of a building under construction or a flower blooming from a small bud are curiously fascinating. It's always interesting to see a new entity come into being, and that holds true for new theater companies as well. In this area, we've been fortunate to witness the birth of several excellent groups in recent years.

Convergence-Continuum in Tremont has done exceptional work from the outset, with an emphasis on cleverly staged productions of challenging works that stretch an audience's expectations. In the past year or so, Kalliope Stage has made a name for itself with remarkably well-cast and splendidly directed musicals that often surpass the work of much larger venues. And Akron's new theater, the Bang and the Clatter, is implementing a year-round schedule of plays that are usually Northeast Ohio premieres -- and almost always done with exuberant style.

The time may come when Fourth Wall Productions can join that precocious theatrical gathering. Unfortunately, that time is not now, based on the new troupe's carelessly shabby production of Babes in America at the Cleveland Play House. In a deadly convergence of a lackluster script and almost laughably bad acting, this errant effort makes one wish that the company's name were literal -- that there really were a fourth wall, preferably three feet thick and soundproof, separating the stage from the defenseless audience.

Billed as "a satire by Carole Clement," the script is sophomoric, pedantic, and numbingly repetitive. And those are its strong points. A middle-aged couple, Liz and Chas Small, have two teenage kids named Betsy and Charlie; next door lives a married couple, Beth and Chuck Small. This same-name game is about as clever as the premise, which involves parents who live only through the internet and TV, and who don't even realize that their children have passed puberty (the kiddies still wear baby bonnets).

If there's a microbe of an idea in there, it is methodically flattened by Clement's inability to create a single believable scene. Director Justin Tatum seems as much at sea as the playwright, allowing his actors to yammer with a complete absence of pace, as if this were their first off-book rehearsal.

Sadly, the performers don't do much to enliven this walking coma. As Liz, Chris A. Wind swallows half her lines and seems to be struggling to remember the rest. During a meandering and disjointed monologue, one dearly wished that an elderly woman in the audience would slowly unwrap a hard candy, just so there would be something interesting to hear. Tom Harris is equally lost as Chas. Only Barry Wakser, as neighbor Chuck, and Erin Posanti, who plays a dancing-miming entity dubbed Shadow (don't ask), appear to have any clue what they're doing.

Just prior to press time, we were notified that the remainder of the run of Babes in America has been canceled, due to what a Fourth Wall spokesperson described as "circumstances beyond our control." If you had considered attending, you have now been given back two hours of your life that otherwise would have been thoroughly squandered. Don't blow 'em this time.

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