A New Beckett?

A veritable plague of new-play festivals has descended upon the land. Last weekend, there were four one-act festivals on local stages with at least that many more readings and full-length festivals on the immediate horizon.

I sat through two of them last weekend. The first will go nameless; suffice it to say it did not represent the zenith of new-play production in this county. Most of the plays were poorly developed, lacking in craft, style, thought, substance and imagination. All were rushed onto the stage before they were ready. I'm all for giving aspiring playwrights a forum in which to see their work breathe, but I'd challenge any rational being with even a modicum of critical acumen to walk away from that litany of duds with any revelation but the following: learn how to write better or get the hell out of the way.

One way to learn is to see a play written by a person who knows how to write plays. There are four such pieces on display at the Empire Theatre, all written by Keith Neilson, an English professor at Cal State Fullerton who cut his chops as a young playwright in Chicago before taking a long break from theater.

He has apparently rediscovered his masochistic streak. Four of his plays make up Dirty Laundry and Dead Virgins.Subtitled "a festival of absurdist one-acts," none of the pieces is logical, but all point out what may be the most difficult concept for any playwright: it's okay not to spoon-feed your audience. Like any great musical solo, sometimes what's most intriguing and important in a play are the spaces between the words, spaces the viewer has to fill in for himself. And all four of Neilsen's plays, whether aiming for the funny bone or the cerebral cortex, force the viewer to engage the material.

Like any talented playwright aware of good theater in the early 1960s, Neilsen was apparently influenced by the great absurdist writers of the time. Or maybe it's more correct to say that like those writers, Neilsen is a product of that Zeitgeist. Take Hades Bobbin,the most provocative and eerie of his four pieces. Four characters in a deserted house struggle for supremacy after their mysterious leader is burned in an accident. The menacing tone and complicated psychology of the piece recall Pinter and Beckett but without ripping off either.

The Death of the Virgin is, on the surface, the least absurd of the plays. A serious painter (a well-drawn Alexander Rodriguez) puts a wisecracking model (an equally effective Julia Jagusiak) through posing hell in an attempt to find genuine beauty. The sexual machinations and role-playing recall Genet and seem relatively logical—until later, when I realized I wasn't quite sure what I had just seen.

The two plays that bookend the bill, Spindry! and Answer Machine,are slighter fare, beginning and ending the night with good belly laughs. The first features a dynamic Anna-Marie Abell as a scorned housewife driven to orgasm by the rumblings of her washing machine—all the while ignored by her distracted husband (Steven Wagner). The second features Matt Cook as an increasingly isolated man with serious emotional and financial problems whose main bridge to the outside world is a series of answering-machine messages ranging from the poetic to the profane. It's a comedy with the humor in a severely jagged jugular vein.

There's a modest problem with Dirty Laundry and Dead Virgins, but it isn't the playwright's fault. Eschewing Beckett's mania for control, Neilson has allowed four different directors to tackle the four plays. While each contributes something to the discussion, there's a lack of uniformity to the evening. You can't help but wonder if it's the playwright's vision or those of the directors that's being communicated.

Even so, Dirty Laundry and Dead Virginsworks because there is always more—and, strangely enough, occasionally less—than what's happening onstage. When Neilsen is being apparently obvious, you can't shake the feeling you're missing something. And when things get really weird, you just hang on to see what happens next. Much like the Jackson-Pollack-meets-Louisiana-bayou orgy of paint splashed on the walls and floor of the Empire Theatre, ultimately Dirty Laundry and Dead Virginsworks on the level of abstract expressionism. The playwright forces us to engage his material, to fill in the blanks, creating a holy union that is far too rare in theater.

Dirty Laundry and Dead Virgins at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through May 13. $12-$15.


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