Neighborhood Values

August Wilson's Two Trains Running, an installment in the subscriber-sharing deal between the Alley and the Ensemble theaters, seems an appropriate entry in the series. The play, perhaps more so than anything else offered up during the audience exchange, presents a window on the world of the middle-class black in urban America -- a world that Wilson is particularly skilled in rendering. Still, Two Trains Running is neither the playwright's best play nor his most didactic one. It falls somewhere between the compelling narratives so evident in some of his other work (Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson) and a heavy dose of social commentary. As usual, however, the Ensemble rises to the demands of the evening, and director Alex Allen Morris has created a heartfelt production of this less than perfect play.

Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, circa 1969, Two Trains Running finds a community on the cusp of change. It's the era of urban renewal, which meant, in addition to other things, that historically black neighborhoods were being bought out by municipal governments in order to "clean up" the inner city. It is also an important moment in the civil rights movement -- Martin Luther King has been assassinated, while the teachings of Malcolm X are building fury and indignation -- and all of these elements come home to roost at a certain neighborhood cafe.

The neighborhood's strata are represented in Wilson's typically well-crafted characters. There is the damaged but strong beauty, Risa, working as a waitress; Memphis, her angry, bitter boss; Sterling, an ex-con with a taste for Malcolm X's rhetoric; Holloway, the retired voice of wisdom; Wolf, a slick operator; West, a rich mortician; and Hambone, an innocent. Rather than bring these individuals together in a overarching story, Wilson has instead given each one an agenda, wound them all up and let them spin around Memphis's cafe.

That cafe looks like a cafe should: a weathered linoleum floor, scuff marks at shoe level on the counter, bottles of ketchup and hot peppers on the tables. Despite the lack of tension in the story, which is simply the tale of one week in the lives of these people, the details and history of the neighborhood trumpet through the writing. Two locally venerated sources of wisdom are frequent topics of discussion, but never appear on stage: the supposedly 329-year-old Aunt Esther, who requests that $20 be thrown into the river as her payment for sensible advice, and the recently deceased "Prophet" Samuel, who was the guide of choice for the community's numbers runners and churchgoing types alike.

When everything else falls away, what separates an Ensemble production from any other is the actors' commitment to character. Clarence Whitmore, quietly persuasive when it comes to explaining the neighborhood's mystery and the trauma of a slave heritage, gives a standout performance as Holloway. Perhaps the true test of an actor in a group work is the ability to fade out when the attention turns to another character, another part of the story, and Whitmore does that as gracefully as anyone has in Houston this season, tapping his cigar ashes out with quiet punctuation.

This being a Wilson play, the greatest moments of humor also offer rare insight. This is especially true of Hambone's woe -- he has been promised a ham for a job well done and never gets it -- a sorrow wrapped in a neighborhood joke that Wilson has used to haunt the play. Kevin L. Hamilton offers a nice array of emotions with his line, "I want my ham" -- anger, loss, righteousness and bewilderment. But it is Holloway who explains the significance of Hambone's repeated demand. Hambone, and to a less obvious degree Memphis, are the only characters who aren't willing to settle for what gets doled out to them. Their dilemma is the one element of the play that has universal significance: How does one choose to answer a broken promise?

There are a few heavy-handed touches here -- a fade-out during two especially preachy dialogues is overkill, and as Memphis, Sterling Vappie gives one of his better speeches to a blank wall -- but still, the actors' careful detail and resonant humor mark a production that rises above its flawed text.

As their sixth play of the season, and Greg Dean's third directorial effort this year, Infernal Bridegroom Productions has settled on a ho-hum version of Heiner MYller's Quartet. There's simply not much going on in IBP's production, aside from a fine turn from Shelley Calene, who's far more interesting here as a wicked taskmaster than she was as the bland Anya in IBP's production of The Cherry Orchard. Perhaps the most annoying problem with Quartet is that it offers tension without an incendiary spark -- a rather odd mistake to make, given the admirably rich script.

Based on Choderlos de Laclos's novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), MYller's short play consists of four scenes in which Merteuil (the aforementioned wicked gal) and Valmont (her antagonist and the current object of her sexual appetite) role-play the destruction of two helpless pawns -- one a doting wife, the other Merteuil's virginal niece. You know the story. You've seen the movie. There's not much more offered here.

Whiteface makeup and jerky movement have become goofy IBP trademarks, and Calene and Dean, who plays Valmont, hobble along like X-rated versions of Shields and Yarnell. There are other devices out there -- set design, for one -- and these adventurous ne'er-do-wells would be well-advised to experiment with them.

Though the actors' restrained delight in their treacherous role-playing works wonderfully for the first 15 minutes, the tension dulls quickly because the stakes never change between Dean and Calene. The same can be said of the jarring soundtrack, which provides an eerie sense of displacement at first, but later turns into a tired device. Dean is graceful in his black silk stilettos, but for me, the charm of his performance ends there.

There are some well thought out moments, especially in terms of mating positions -- however perilous they are for Calene. Clad in a corset and slip with the briefest of undergarments, the actress is often quite vulnerable to the audience's gaze. Dean remains covered where it counts, except for a quick baring of his buttocks. This is one conceit that works well in terms of the story: It is Merteuil, after all, who is disingenuous about her possessive feelings for Valmont, and thus it is she who exposes herself to his manipulations. Ultimately, Quartet has all the trappings of an IBP production and none of their didn't-see-it-coming punch. Let us hope that the trappings will soon broaden their scope.

Two Trains Running plays through June 1 at the Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch (at Holman), 520-0055; Quartet plays though May 10 at Commerce Street Art Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 935-2008.

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Megan Halverson