Well Constructed

Sometimes, one element in a production is so far superior to all others that it throws everything out of whack. The playwright might outdistance the company; the company might leave the playwright in the theatrical dust. The director might be more perceptive than the crew; an actor might be so "on" that s/he turns everybody else "off." Such a discrepancy can be a particular problem at community theater because of the proximity of the audience: at plain sight, everything feels magnified. There's nowhere to hide.

As soon as I walked into Main Street Theater, where Jeffrey Sweet's dramatic comedy With and Without is receiving its Southwest premiere, I was overwhelmed by the set. An octagonal platform of pungent cedar dominates the acting area. It's the deck of a country house, half bounded by benches. Centered in the other half is a table. The chairs around it are director's chairs, as if those who sit in them are stars in some universe, or are desiring to be in charge. Along one of the wings is a wooden wall, some distant connection to the off-stage country house. Thus, the action, occurring outside on a deck of a set, is given breathing room and is simultaneously relaxed and intensified.

The scenic design, I thought, is so pleasing it's going to upstage the show. My first impression, I thought, will last longer than anything that follows. Resigned, I prepared to space out and stare.

I needn't have worried. The play, the director, the cast, even the prop master matched scenic designer Thomas Fowlkes' inspiration. Main Street is in fine form here.

With and Without is a small, well-observed, affecting comedy of tense manners about Mark, a sensitive man who'd prefer to be understanding in a manly way; his ostensibly contented wife Shelly, whose outward mordancy masks inward insecurities; and Jill, an aggressive success turned caustic and wounded when her husband doesn't show up at the vacation house the couples have rented together for a weekend. The crux of the matter is how these seemingly self-aware people deal or don't deal with what the husband's absence brings up -- which is a lot, given that Jill is Mark's old girlfriend and that Shelly is the one who originally set Jill up with her now-absent husband. Suspecting her spouse of infidelity, Jill flirts with Glenn, a divorced carpenter she picks up at a video store. They negotiate a mutual seduction E or do they? By evening's end, the characters hurt and help and lie and tell the truth to one another and themselves in a web of ways.

Solidly crafted, With and Without is the stuff of alliances and misalliances, communication and miscommunication. But rather than confront issues, the characters speak in the arch patter of small talk, all the while acknowledging that despite the distancing, cheery superiority the literate banter provides, it's still an urgent code. Seemingly trivial witticisms -- about how to answer the phone in a neutral voice so as to ensure "maximum emotional flexibility," or about how legislation should be passed to protect "endangered people" such as movie stars so that fans can remain safe from being disillusioned by tarnished images -- loom large. When the characters make cracks about one another, they always say that they're kidding exactly because they're not.

Though packed with too many symbols -- Mark likes to survey the horizon with binoculars, Glenn's attempt to take charge of his life is prompted by a starter's pistol, Jill works as an events planner -- With and Without is superbly well-wrought, from how it begins with Mark and Shelly debating which "sympathetic noises" comfort best, to how the flow of things is kept intact by omitting an intermission in the short, fluid show (90 minutes, tops). All about language, limits and responsibility in marriage, friendships and other relationships, With and Without sparkles with smart, wry irony, nowhere more so than in Shelly's climactic revelation: "In my experience, sometimes the difference between something working and not working can be whether one person is smart enough not to say something they have every right to say, but that could do damage."

It's this desire to make precise what's inherently messy in people's interactions that director Robin Robinson exploits to good effect. Awkward pauses, flaring passions, sardonic friction, bitter humor, sexual tension, evasive tactics, pointed confrontations, unguarded moments and absurd twists are all isolated and refracted, the net result being a show that reflects like a prism. The show pivots exactly as it should at each and every juncture. Robinson is in control in the very way his actors' characters would like to be.

The cast is terrific. The most commanding is Rachel Ollagnon as Shelly. Through a confidence that fosters an authoritative ease, Ollagnon is provocative yet frank, displaying a languorous acumen so alluring that it makes Shelly's flashes of vulnerability all the more startling. Celeste Cheramie has a habit of preening in a sexily arrogant manner as soon as she hits the stage regardless of her role, but as Jill, this mannerism takes shape once it becomes clear that Jill is on edge and compensating. Cheramie's carnally visceral portrait attracts warranted attention; her emotive skills suit her well here. Given the difficult job of finding a way to make the good soul that is Mark compelling, Mark Roberts adeptly modulates his true righteousness with self-righteousness. Glenn, who turns out to have an interesting divorce story in his past, is a tricky role, requiring a blend of comic, ominous and pathetic nuances. Robert Skehan succeeds in creating the mix.

With the big picture Main Street, too, succeeds: the venue is transformed into theater-in-the-round so as to "see" things from all sides. On the small scale Main Street succeeds as well: prop master Rodney Walsworth scatters the set with a scoring pad for bridge, crossword puzzles and such mind-bending board games as Guesstures. And Main Street succeeds everywhere in between. With and Without and Main Street fit.

With and Without plays through February 4 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706

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.
Peter Szatmary