A practice of many young theater companies—and even those that have been around for a while—is to use popular, accessible, public-domain workhorses to finance the production of risky original plays. That might make financial sense, but the surest way to forge a great reputation is simply to do good work—work that is neither original nor free. That usually means spending money on royalties for published pieces.
Now in its second season, Long Beach's 6 Chairs and a Couple of Artists theater company has taken the latter course, forking out real money to stage Lee Blessing's Two Rooms. A well-established playwright (Cobb and Independence), Blessing earned both Pulitzer and Tony nominations for his 1988 play A Walk in the Woods.
Two Rooms explores the plight of American professor Michael Wells (Christian Kiley) who is kidnapped by Beirut terrorists and tries to retain a connection with his wife back home, Lanie (Melody Turner). Blessing believes a communicative bond can still exist between the two, despite Michael's captivity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The two soliloquize elegies to each other and even meet in dreams. The play keeps its political commentary to a minimum in favor of exploring the love between Mr. and Mrs. Wells.
Blessing is a fine playwright, but Two Rooms could be described as Too Earnest. For a play meant to recognize human love and show the power of human connection, there is very little love and connection on display. Instead of a sensitive and subtle etching of these two characters' pain and loss, we get a play that is trite and self-important.
The fault is not Blessing's alone. Director Jen Adams' cast is mostly unable to inject real experience into the proceedings. Though there are moments of powerful imagery—particularly in Kiley's blindfolded appeals to his absent wife—most of the play is spent in the throes of something like grumpiness. Countless shouting matches, innumerable tears and a lot of frowning make this an exhausting experience. One suspects Adams is trying to turn every moment of the play into some sort of peak experience; if so, it's a strategy that overshadows the little arc Blessing has built into his play. The production would be better served if the cast could find more humor and vulnerability in its material. As it is, it's just too much cheap emotion.
Which, ironically, might be a good thing for this company—at least the artists can actually get to those peak experiences, which many professional companies can't. So let this production be a learning experience for 6 Chairs, particularly when they tackle their next reputable, contemporary playwright.
Two Rooms at Six Chairs & a Couple of Artists Theater, 1409 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (310) 226-7075. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 17. $12-$15; student discounts available.