Theatre Southwest Can't Quite Overcome a Weak Script with An Act of the Imagination

The setup:

A successful mystery-genre novelist finds unexpected twists in his own life as a series of surprising events unfold.

The execution:

Playwright Bernard Slade wrote the huge hit Same Time Next Year, a charming romantic comedy, so expectations were high for this work, perhaps unrealistically so. The good news is that Scott Holmes plays Arthur Putnam, and creates an authentic, warm, interesting character, and we are happy to spend time in his amiable company. He is bumbling where bumbling is called for, intense where necessary, and charming in his more relaxed moments. (But even he can't carry off an extended sentimental reverie in Act II that seems as though it belongs in another play.)

Taylor Biltoft plays Simon, his son, a handsome lad but a bit of a slacker, with enthusiasm for entrepreneurial projects not fully thought through, and he is convincing and fits well into this slightly upscale British home. Julia Putnam (Jackie Pender-Lovell) is Arthur's second wife (the deceased first wife is the mother of Simon), and she is patient in putting up with her absent-minded husband. Pender-Lovell is miscast -- she simply doesn't bring to the role the charisma and fire required for Act II developments.

Almost nothing except exposition occurs for most of the first act, though we also meet a friend of Arthur, Detective Fred Burchitt (Kevin Bray) and Arthur's editor (Pamela M. Moore). Bray is excellent, and Moore is compelled to play a ditsy role in a high-pitched voice, for comic effect. I found this irritating rather than amusing, but I suspect a good actor is hidden behind those glasses.

Just as I was wondering where on earth the mystery was, in popped Brenda Simmons (Chelsea Curto), young, long-legged and dynamic, letting us know instantly that the lower classes were alive and well in London. Her entrance brought with it some much-needed complications, and a breath of fresh air -- the game was afoot!

Act II brings a plethora of surprises, perhaps trying to atone for the blandness of Act I. Without giving away developments, not all is as it seems, but I felt slimed by ensuing events -- it is here that we see how miscast Pender-Lovell is. Credulity is strained, common sense disregarded and implausibility piled upon implausibility to such an extent that I wondered if this was a spoof of the genre. One example may suffice: A detective about to arrest a character for a brutal murder agrees to leave the character alone, in a room with a loaded gun, by an open door leading to an unguarded garden, to "compose thoughts" and muse a bit before being run in. Give me a break.

Costuming was strange. The lining of Arthur's jacket, worn extensively, was hanging at the back three inches below the bottom, and I kept wondering why no family member offered to lend him a pin. His pajamas were badly torn as well. These were intended, I assume, to make him seem absent-minded, but instead they merely made him seem impoverished. The female costumes seemed two sizes too small, as though streetwalker chic was the new thing.

Director Ananka Kohnitz has a reputation for directing raw, powerful dramas such as Tracy Letts's Killer Joe and his Bugs. And I liked her direction of Asylum at Theatre Southwest last Fall. But this mish-mash of a script is beyond her talents to salvage. There is a final twist that attempts to remove some of the slime, but it came too late -- the stains had set.

The verdict:

An excellent performance by Scott Holmes, aided by some strong supporting characters, goes a long way in overcoming a weak script, and makes enjoyable a play divided between a bland first act and a disagreeable second one.

An Act of the Imagination continues through March 10 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information or ticketing, call 713-661-9505 or e-mail [email protected]

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Jim Tommaney