Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bridges: Charming Stories Play with Romantic Conventions


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

You’ve got to hand it to the folks at 6th @ Penn Theatre. Not only do they frequently perform two shows at once — a main production on Thursday through Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon and another work on the usual “off” nights (Sunday through Wednesday) — but usually the shows have some connection. Maybe one is an authentic Greek tragedy and the other a recently written play set in ancient Greece that comments on the convention of the dramas of the time; or, as in their current pairing of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and local playwright Doug Hoehn’s Bridges: Two Love Stories, the connection seems to be to give their audience a bit of the milk of human kindness after having put Mamet’s acid in their saucer.

Hoehn’s Bridges, directed by himself, actually consists of two one-act plays about love and relationships. The first one, Fourth Street Bridge, takes place in a small caretaker’s cottage under the titular bridge in a carefully unnamed Midwestern city. A nicely dressed set (no set designer or dresser is credited but the interior of the room is obviously based on the office set for the second act of Glengarry Glen Ross) tells us quite a lot about its inhabitant, Dirk (Ryan Schulze): it’s a sort of amiable clutter with posters for the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup and the Stanley Kubrick film of Lolita on the walls and two volumes of “501 Must-See Movies” lying face-down on different surfaces.

Dirk, it turns out, is a “partially disabled” veteran of the most recent Iraq war who has been given the job as caretaker of the bridge property by the city because his disabilities (which Hoehn doesn’t reveal until well into his play) make him unsuitable for ordinary employment. When the play opens we see him talking to a woman who remains offstage, and at first the reason for her presence there is a mystery. Did he pick her up and he’s trying to coax her into his apartment to top off their evening with a romp in the hay? “I don’t want to have sex with you!” snarls Tasha (Katharine Tremblay) when we finally do see her. Nor, she adds, does she want to be preached to; it seems virtually every man she’s met lately has wanted either to bed her, save her soul, or both, and she’s tired of it.

In fact, Tasha is tired of a lot of things. Her parents were competitive swimmers and they threw her into a pool almost as soon as she could walk, pushing her to compete as a child, a high-school student and as a college student. Now she’s so sick of their pressure that she’s determined to take one final dive off the bridge and end it all. “Oh, here we go again,” Dirk is clearly thinking as he girds himself to try to talk her out of it, having long since learned that in addition to mowing the lawns under the bridge towers, his caretaker gig also involves doing amateur suicide counseling. Tasha says she’ll leave her backpack with him before she takes her final leap, and Dirk matter-of-factly shows her two other pieces of luggage left him by other Fourth Street Bridge suicides.

Though the events in Fourth Street Bridge move unnaturally swiftly — Hoehn was clearly racing to tie up all the loose ends of his plot in 35 minutes — and the ease with which the characters overcome their physical and psychological wounds and pair up at the end (I don’t think I’m really spoiling the suspense here!) seem almost intended as a parody of romantic fiction rather than a serious attempt at it, Fourth Street Bridge is a charmer from start to finish. Ryan Schulze is just right for his part, personable and physically attractive without being too hunky; and Katharine Tremblay manages to establish the character’s bitterness even before she opens her mouth, just by her tight body language when she enters. Hoehn’s writing is sensitive and lovable, punctuated with nice lines that work both as jokes and as expressions of the characters’ mutual incomprehension — as when Dirk introduces himself as having the same name as the British actor Dirk Bogarde, and Tasha says, “I remember him. He was in The Maltese Falcon!”

The second half of Bridges, called Sea Change, is considerably grimmer. At the start we see Ed Warren (Patrick Hubbard) in a wheelchair, reminiscing about how he met his wife in a classic Hollywood “meet-cute” (they were in a Midwestern city shortly after World War II, he slipped and fell on a patch of ice while running for a streetcar, and she ran into him while trying to catch the same car) that suggests Hoehn may have a future as a romance-film screenwriter. Then we see the real Ed Warren in the grip of Alzheimer’s, and we also see Ingrid (Joan Westmoreland), the wife he met so charmingly in his flashback, as she is today: tough, bitter, hardened by years of putting up first with his infidelities and now with his disease, but also insistent that she can offer him better care at home (the California condo to which they retired) than the staff of a nursing home can.

Into this already combustible mixture Hoehn throws two sparks. One is the Warrens’ third and youngest child, and only daughter, Veronica (Barbara Cole), a strident attitude queen fresh from two busted marriages of her own and a career-destroying inclination to leave a job at the first drop of a boss’s insult. The other is a notice from the Veterans’ Administration that they’re not going to pay for Ed’s home care anymore because — you guessed it — they’ve decided it’s more cost-effective to put him in a nursing home. Their oldest child, Tony, lives with his family in the Midwest and never comes out; the middle child, Gary, is talked about as if he did something really terrible to alienate them (at times it seemed like he’d come out Gay and they’d disowned him), but Hoehn has given him a quite different sort of tragic fate.

What makes Sea Change work more than anything else is the utterly convincing acting of Patrick Hubbard. You actually believe that he’s lost control of his memory, and that vividly recalled flashes of scenes that took place years ago suddenly come to the forefront of his consciousness, only to sink again into the morass of his dementia. His running line about wanting to make up for all the wrongs he’s done in his life only frustrates his wife and daughter, who can’t tie it in to any of their memories of him and his actions. Westmoreland and Cole both play their characters well — a bit hobbled by the way Hoehn has made them both so bitter they hardly get to act any other emotions — but it is Hubbard who runs away with the acting honors here.

Bridges makes an interesting double bill. Hoehn’s direction of both plays is insightful (how could it not be when he wrote them?) and he knows how to get good performances from his actors. He also uses the 6th @ Penn’s problematic playing space effectively, and his scripts have the intriguing combination of sentimentality and jaundice that made so many of the productions of the (mostly) late, (very) lamented Fritz Theatre so effective. Neither of the plays is a masterpiece, but both are well written and convincingly dramatic, and it’s clear from them that Doug Hoehn is a talent quite likely on his way to better things.

Bridges plays through Wednesday, March 7 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Sun. at 7 p.m. and Mon., Tues. and Wed. at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $15 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 688-9210 or online at www.sixthatpenn.com