The park was as black as the sins it concealed," Vladimir Nabokov wrote in "Lolita." The line popped into my head because all three one-act plays Drama! is currently presenting share the same park setting, two of them contain some strange goings-on, and the playwrights here are masters of wordplay, just like Nabokov.
One is Edward Albee, and the play is his first success, "Zoo Story." The others are by local writer Ross Gray, who was asked by actor-director Luis Q. Barroso to craft two short plays that could use the "Zoo Story" set. The Albee, of course, is a small masterpiece of bizarre storytelling and misdirection, with homoerotic and Hitchcockian overtones.
The surprise is that Gray's "Park Stories" -- "Duet" and "Deal" -- while lighter in tone than "Zoo Story," are skewed in similarly unexpected ways. Gray's writing is smart, funny and mature, his characters sharply drawn and articulate. His is a distinct voice; it could be a major asset to this theater group, which deals with gay and lesbian themes.
Combined with physical improvements made to its theater space and splendid performances by six gifted actors, this program represents a major step for Drama!, where gay and straight theater artists and audiences have come together to build a true community theater in just 3½ years.
In "Zoo Story," Michael Cahill plays the stuffy, affluent publisher Peter, who just wants to read a book on a park bench on a sunny Sunday. He is accosted by the truculent Jerry, played by Blake Balu, who pesters Peter with personal questions and tells stories about his own bleak life in a rooming house, encounters with his lusty landlady and her ferocious dog. Eventually, he taunts Peter into a fight and gets the ending to his story that he's sought all along.
Cahill's bland, bourgeois pedant, roused to violence, is a subtle, first-rate piece of acting, and Balu's Jerry gives the impression of an eccentric who could go ballistic at any moment (he should, however, be scruffier in appearance). Barroso directed, heightening the play's discomforting air of edgy uncertainty.
Gray's "Duet" presents us with Veronica Russell as Katherine, a sleek corporate executive, and Marinda Woodruff as Sanndi, her lover, "the only girl who took shop" in school and whose mother "stopped worrying about my sex life when I was made captain of the field hockey team." With sperm donated by Katherine's brother, Sanndi has had their child, a little boy. She recalls that while carrying Jacob, "tips were pretty good at the bar -- everyone wanted to see the pregnant dyke."
Their only problem seems to be that Katherine is away too often on business. It turns out that there is another problem, prompting a wild explosion of anger from Sanndi, a calming down, a new revelation, a new tirade and yet another confession that tops them all. To tell you any more would be unfair, but Woodruff and Russell ride these waves of comedy-drama like Sapphic surfers.
Lucas Harms plays a passer-by in "Duet," but then turns up in "Deal" as the afternoon is dimming into night. He is Kevin, a hustler from an escort service who doesn't usually take "an out-call in the park."
But his elegant client Phil, played by Barroso, is wealthy and has something very particular in mind. First he wants to talk. Kevin, it turns out, reads the Wall Street Journal and plays the market. "It's a new age of rent boys," sighs Phil, who comes from old money. Both know the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, and Phil believes "in beautiful language . . ." Kevin attempts to get things back on track by reciting his litany of what he will and won't do sexually, and Phil murmurs, "I'm not on that list."
How they finally get it on is imaginative, hilarious and sexy, all at once. Barroso performs with a confident, cosmopolitan élan, while Harms is a resourceful, natural actor of considerable ability.
John Grimsley directed Gray's one-acts with impudent humor and sly intelligence. He also designed the set and built the new multileveled seating at the Cowpokes' Barn Theater Space.
Anyone who enjoys theater should catch this terrific triple bill, rejoice in the diversity of talent involved and applaud Drama! and founder Charlie Hayes, who's working as stage manager for this one.
THE ZOO STORY
& PARK STORIES
What: Drama! presents Edward Albee's famous one-act and two new one-acts, 'Duet' and 'Deal,' by Ross Gray, directed, respectively, by Luis Q. Barroso and John Grimsley.
Where: Cowpokes' Barn Theater Space, 1030 Marigny St.
When: Performances Fri, Sat, Thurs and May 28-29 at 8 p.m. and Sun at 5 p.m.
Tickets: $15 at the door; $12 in advance, $7 student with valid ID.