Saturday, March 24, 2012

"M.I.A." from Pittsburgh Playhouse

"M.I.A" follows the family of a soldier who is currently "Missing In Action", but is most likely dead. The soldier's 40th birthday lands on the weekend his conservative, patriotic father is accepting a "Man Of The Year Award" from the local VFW. While the family has in many ways moved on from the death of the eldest brother, when the youngest son declares his desire to enlist, the family is torn between patriotism and keeping a child safe.

The show, while "emotional" is labored. The script is populated with lots of talking over miniscule, low-stakes events - some of which have nothing to do with the story. Characters ask the most obvious questions about each other. Because why would a father, on the weekend he is receiving an award from the VFW M.I.A. Commitee, on the birthday of his son who went M.I.A., seem distracted?

And it's not that the performances are bad. Larry John Meyers as Frank Schooler - the father who might have taught his boys too well - and his real-life wife Holly Thuma as Emmy Schooler bring the chemistry and are believably married onstage. Justin Mark DeWolf delivers a young man who is torn between allegiance to his family and allegiance to what he believes makes a man (and delivers what could be the best monologue in the show). The supporting cast, Tommy LaFitte and Daina Michelle Griffith are equally skilled in their craft.

What makes everyone suffer is that the characters are basically archetypes. There's the housewife who cooks well, the career woman growing distant from her husband (but who never seems to leave her parents' house...), the wise-talkin' Democratic black man who keeps the Republican white man in check with witty banter. However, the play does succeed in keeping the focus off the politics and on the humanity, even if the characters are clear-cut from the first scene.

Also characters talk about two things: the father and the missing brother. There's also no real discoveries revealed throughout the piece, so there's very little driving action that propels the story forward. And the "surprises" can be seen coming from a mile away. The ending becomes some version of "A Christmas Carol" with the ghost of the dead son appearing - played by Justin Fortunato - in a performance that makes you wish the character had been used better than "The Ghost of Christmas Past".

One consistently nice thing about Pittsburgh Playhouse is the attention they give to set design. Even in the studio space, whenever you go to see a production there you know the stage is going to be unique and transformed for every given show. In "M.I.A", the set is a sand colored and textured blank slate with benches, tombstones and dinner tables seemingly growing from the sandscape.

What really transforms the space are the lighting elements. Fantastic visuals of sand flowing and wind whistling help disorient the audience and the characters so dream sequences, nightmares actually have a complete change from the "real world".

 Now, let it be said that "M.I.A" is NOT the worst constructed show to be given a full production in Pittsburgh this year - not at all. But, it seems to be a plague among Pittsburgh theatres that shows which have a strong connection via writers, marriages, professional relationships to the theatre/people involved are the ones being performed.

That is fine, it really is. It's a part of having a theatre community, but is it too much to ask that these world-premieres - which are on the road to becoming full-fledge, well-paced, stand-alone shows - get a few staged readings? Maybe some developmental workshops? Just so someone has the chance to say, "Hey, the first 45 min of this show is nothing but exposition to set up the Act 1 curtain...maybe we could integrate that better?"

TIckets for "M.I.A." can be purchased here:

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic enjoys aliens, but only half as much as robots. That being said, robots are liked only one fourth as much as mutants, but hey, no one is perfect.  

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