Choose Wisely

It doesn't take long to dig to the heart of Worth & Choice, Douglas Mitchell's thin pair of one-acts running at Theater LaB. The central question hovers large and obvious as a dirigible: How do we determine the value of human life?

First on the bill is "Suffer Little Children." Here we meet Regis (James Huston), a grief-stricken middle-aged man who is spending this sunny morning in a bar throwing back generous shots of Jack Daniel's. His best friend is dead, and Regis tosses off bad poetic laments as he guzzles his drinks. "He was the best part of me," he says. "I needed him to need me." It seems pretty clear that Regis is talking about his lover. But no. When the bartender (James Christian) suggests that Regis and his friend might have had something going on, Regis launches into a long diatribe against people who think every deep friendship between men is sexual. Turns out that whether Regis is gay has nothing whatsoever to do with the point of Mitchell's play; it's just an odd detour in a story that gets odder by the minute.

Like a twisted Twilight Zone, sans the spooky voice-over, the weirdness of the story eventually comes into focus. In the first place, Regis is the only dude who's been to this bar...ever. And the guy serving drinks has an odd way of saying, in sweet condescension, "Oh, you humans!" It turns out that the bartender's here to make a proposition, one that's sure to teach Mr. I'm Not Gay something about life.

The only person Regis values is his dead friend. Like some troglodyte who just got off a train from the '50s, he says his ex-wife was good only for her cooking. Then he waves his highball toward the world outside and pronounces the man in a wheelchair across the street nothing more than a "poor blob." Clearly Regis is in need of a good kick in his pleated pants. But the bartender is too Touched by an Angel-creepy for butt-kicking; instead he offers Regis a choice with a capital C. He will trade the life of the "poor blob" for the return of Regis's companion, er, friend.

That Regis barely questions this bizarre hoodoo offer fits right into the TV reality here, as does the fast and painless lesson he learns about the value of human life. Stilted and reductive, this morality tale isn't helped by William Hardy's stodgy direction. He has these stiff characters talking as if they were in a board meeting; you'd hardly know this was a matter of life and death. Both Huston and Christian deliver their parts with a breezy, offhand style that fails to energize the story. But to be fair, it's hard to imagine any actor being able to ignite to Mitchell's sophomoric script, even on TV.

The opening scene of the second play, "Of Objective Value," is the best of the evening. Two Nazis, getting dressed for a night on the town, nonchalantly discuss the day's dirty business at the concentration camp. Primping and preening, the soldiers yap about the prisoners as if they were annoying office machines. "Even when they're standing on the edge of their graves they still manage to make trouble," says one square-jawed guard. "It seems to me that women die slower than men," snickers another.

News flash: Nazis don't value human life. But wait. There's that one fellow standing in the corner, the one who vomited when he had to shoot a woman who wouldn't "stand still." Helmut (James Christian) is the faintly beating heart in this otherwise dead world. He's also the fellow whom inmate Erika (Chesley Santoro) is trying to reach before her day is done.

Erika has been one of the "lucky" ones. Chosen by head honcho Heinz (James Huston) to work in the office, she's managed to stay alive longer than most. But she's got a secret she's willing to die for. Implausibly, she managed to smuggle a suitcase into her barrack, and inside its silky lining is a sheet of music penned by none other than Beethoven himself. Erika wants to give the treasure to Helmut before she dies because she believes he'll understand its value. She believes this because she heard him whistling the same tune while he was shooting -- gasp -- Erika's daughter! Again, Mitchell's point about value and choice is hammer-on-the-head obvious.

There isn't much a director could do to save these scripts, but Hardy doesn't seem to be trying very hard. Both one-acts are played with a reserve that undercuts the TV-like melodrama in the scripts, but the result of this softball approach is a pinched production that fails to capture any emotion -- even the weepy surface sort of the made-for-TV movie.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams