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A Small Melodramatic Story

Transformative people are people who seek knowledge, and then use it as a means to a better end. They tend to seize the broken day; fix the unfixable, transcend the ungodly, unstick the stuck heart. Knowledge is the saber with which they slay the demon night. With knowledge they fire the skies; throw paint against walls; create chocolate angels who bring forth the Golden Rule. They're control freaks with fabulous hearts. Know-it-alls wearing coveralls as they tip-toe through the tulips. They're untouchable; unsta\oppable; never to be denied freedom because they've learned how to transform. And I used to be one of them. Until I tried to know too much.—O

Lee Sellars  & Quincy Tyler Bernstine in  A Small Melodramatic Story
Lee Sellars & Quincy Tyler Bernstine in A Small Melodramatic Story (Photo: Monique Carboni)
A Small Melodramatic Story, currently being presented by the Labyrinth Theater Company, may be a small story but it explores some big issues. It's tragic all right, but it's also big on humor.

In structure Stephen Belber's new play most closely resembles The Death of Frank, which was also insightfully directed by Lucie Tiberghien. It's a narrator driven play but with shifts from narration to active scenes between the narrator (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and the three other characters who propel this small, generally quiet and non-explosive story to its melodramatic conclusion.

The chief narrator is a thirty-eight-year-old widow cryptically and rather pretentiously named O (Bernstine). That's not an initial used instead of Olga or Ophelia or Oprah, but just O. Christening her with this puzzling name may be the playwright's way of underscoring this exploration of the elusiveness of all history, whether pertaining to a poor Latino teen ager, a police or army officer, or a well known historic personage — and whether the need to know all the facts sometimes should bow to the old cliche about letting sleeping dogs lie.

Takeshi Kata's steel gray office furnished mostly with locked files is presumably the National Security Archive where O's friend Keith (Lee Sellars) works as a researcher. It also serves for scenes that play out at various locations in and around present day Washington DC.

Belber uses O, with her tendency to be attracted to men who are hard to know fully, as the foreground figure of the larger canvas of the government archive office where, as Keith puts it "everything that mankind has done somewhere is documented." O's audience addressing monologues provide the playwright with the opportunity to indulge both his penchant for poetic language (see O's character establishing speech at the top of this review) and amusing dialogue. While a subtle sense of humor is also part of O's persona, the funniest dialogue goes to Sellars' Keith.

Keith, who knew O's husband Burt long before she did (they were college buddies and joined the army together, with Burt becoming a career army man). He feels O needs to let go of her life in the Falls Church, Virginia house she inherited from her husband and come to DC for a more vibrant life — hopefully, one in which he'll have a larger role than seeing her during her occasional drop-in visits to his apartment.

O likes Keith and is tempted by his courting overtures, but it's his friend Perry (the play's most textured and emotionally persuasive character as played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a policeman with whom he boxes occasionally, who stirs her heart. After her first date with him she admits in an audience aside that "here was a man I could sink my teeth into" This triangular situation doesn't make for even a tiny melodrama. However, since her husband was something of a hard to figure out wild card and even the cause of his death remains an unexplained mystery, O's discovery that the gentle-seeming Perry was involved in a shooting of a Latino boy compels her to dig further into what happened and why before getting more deeply involved with him. Posing as a journalist, she seeks out Cleo (Carlo Alban) the now twenty-two year-old brother of the young man Perry shot. It is from the moment that this seething cauldron of malice and menace comes on scene that we sense that the title's "m" word will materialize in this heretofore quiet story.

The shift from low key to high drama raises the issue of the unintended consequences of being too much of a "knowledge seeker." The big problem with introducing this melodramatic element into the admittedly small story, is that it's as much as anything the result of going about that knowledge quest foolishly rather than wisely.

To Lucie Tiberghien's credit, the explosive situation is smoothly handled and of a piece with the production's mood. While she has coaxed compelling performances from the four actors she has allowed the intimacy of the theater to lull her into paying too little heed to voice projection. The Shiva Theater is small enough so that the last row is the equivalent of a prime orchestra seat in a Broadway house. Thus , seeing a play here should be like sitting right across the kitchen table frm the actors. Unfortunately, Ms. Bernstine who is a potently engaging actress here, as she recently was in Nami (review), delivers some of her most fraught with emotion lines in a near whisper. No such problems for Isiah Whitlock, whose booming baritone would be clarion clear to audiences in the back of a much larger house.

Like Public Television's News Hour, which scrupulously looks at both sides of every issue, Mr. Belber leaves it to Keith and O and Perry to make a case for knowing the bad as well as the good or letting go of past history. No matter how you feel about these questions, these characters' small melodramatic story adds up to a generally absorbing ninety minutes.

Death of Frank
One Million Butterflies

Playwright: Stephen Belber
Director: Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Carlo Alban, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Lee Sellars, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Sets: Takeshi Kata
Costumes: Mimi O'Donnell
Lights: Matthew Richards
Sound: Elizabeth Rhodes
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
LAByrinth at Public Theater, 420 Lafayette St.
From 10/10/06 to 11/05; opening 10/22/06.
Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday ? Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2pm and 8pm; and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm.
Tickets $45
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 20th press performance

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