Needs Re-Thinking: Now This

The setup:I wondered why Now This, which portrays a mall shooting that slays four, lacked an exclamation point to make it Now This!, but after seeing the play I no longer wonder. For the play lacks drama, lacks a point of view, and ultimately trivializes the kind of tragedy it is exploring.

All I can assume is that playwright Scott Kaiser and director Sara Becker were so blinded by good intentions and the significance of the material that they inadvertently walked off the cliff of drama. There are almost two separate plays in this production from the University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance, one in each of two acts.

The execution:

In Act One we are introduced - relentlessly - to some of the townfolk of Purple Mountain. We learn their jobs and a fragment of their lives, aided by an MC, an important role demanding charisma, an interesting voice, and a commanding stage presence - none of which are available to the actor cast. The first act is really a prose chorale, and so static that it could only be saved if the actors were dancers as well, to provide some much-needed movement.

Well, many a good play uses the first act as a setup (I sighed), and I looked forward to Act Two opening with guns blazing. No such luck.

We learn more about several lives - though far too little about the gunman himself, sketched but not delineated - and I especially liked a flashback to the Big Band era, with some ballroom dancing. But even here, while the tuxedoed men were graceful, the female object of their adoration was deliberately not, as though to tell the audience: Nothing can be beautiful in Purple Mountain.

This act had vignettes, drug-aided dreams that entailed period costumes at considerable variance with the naturalism of Act One. These looked suspiciously like filler material. Are you still waiting for the gun shots? I was, while pondering what the Big Band era had to do with a mall shooting.

Well, the shots finally came, muted, like the talents on display. The aftermath impact on the town employed heavy-handed irony.

The verdict:

The writing is prosaic, and the staging often awkward, especially in Act One. Some of the visual projections, like one of Mount Rushmore, worked quite well, and some of the 19 actors gave us flashes of pure, raw talent (you know who you are).

The last University of Houston production, Wild Oats, was superb, a triumph of stagecraft and acting, and I know you can't win them all. Years of development went into Now This, but even considered as a work-in-progress, it needs more than more time and some revisions - it needs to be re-thought from the very kernel of its being.

The show runs through April 24 at University of Houston, Jose Quintero Theatre, Entrance 16 off Cullen Blvd. For information, call 713- 743-5548.

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Jim Tommaney