Hammers and Chocolates

In The Quotable Assassin, the second play in Love, Death and Interior Decorating at Altered Stages, Simon Dubanev says he is "a man who believed not in himself but in a cause." But then, they say that the personal is political. Although The Quotable Assassin is concerned with the experience of a European revolutionary condemned to death, we never really learn too much about Simon's life before prison, other than he was a history teacher who killed the king. Like the evening's first one-act, Walls, the play actually unveils a romance complicated by its characters' inability to move past their psychological barriers. How much we're expected to consider these two works a complementary duet—the program describes them as "an evening of two distantly related one-acts by Keith Boynton"—I'm not sure. Halfway through Walls, Gail, who is renovating her deceased, and much beloved, father's house, hangs a lamp that also lights the second play—which like its counterpart centers on one male and one female character. And there are some other parallels. But by the time The Quotable Assassin—an elegantly executed pearl of a play—was finished, I found myself wondering whether the first piece should have been included.

In Walls a house under construction—mostly consisting of blue walls and doorways, and one wall covered in the posters of Gail's childhood—is the setting where Gail, in a sharp, no-nonsense performance by Joan Kubicek, and her past love Carter (Mike LaVoie) are doing renovations. Despite having previously left without explanation, Carter earnestly proclaims that he loves her still. LaVoie grows into inhabiting his character, an impulsive, intellectual clown—"I like myself OK. But I enjoy myself immensely." Boynton, who also directs the play, smartly has the characters play the whole stage, squatting and sitting on the floor when there are no chairs, and tempering what is ultimately too much talking around the point.

Boynton, a recent college graduate, already displays a great ear for realistic, intelligent, and witty dialogue, and he occasionally locates real poignancy—is there anything as awkward as one person singing "Happy Birthday" alone from start to finish? But although Gail hands off pieces of paper to Carter as resolutely as if she were brandishing a weapon, the stakes just don't seem as high as the characters would have us believe. And while the ending is cleverly constructed, it's also a little too contrived to pack an emotional punch.

Unlike the contemporary Walls, The Quotable Assassin is a period piece set in a prison cell in a "fictional European nation." Not long after Lucia, the novelist who interviews Simon for research, first enters his cell—which is not much more than a bed—she tells him, "I intend to look very closely indeed. I intend to peel your soul like a grape, Mr. Dubanev, until every little vice and neurosis and secret grudge and infantile hope lies bare and dry before me like a prehistoric skeleton."

While the intricacies of Simon's soul are never really revealed to us, the play does show how the two characters understand each other. Simon tells Lucia that of all her novels, he particularly likes the one that "is really about you," and we know from the expression on her face that he has her pegged.

Though neither the script nor the direction is perfectly structured—the last two scenes seem to contradict each other too rapidly, and the text at times stretches itself too thin—it's ultimately a pleasure to watch. Director Sandra Boynton stages the piece quite gracefully (and for those of you parents or nannies, yes, this is the well-known children's author, and also the playwright's mother). Lucia's parade of costumes and the interludes of chanting choirs between scenes also bring an unlikely beauty to the stark setting.

Keith Boynton holds his own as Simon, but the production is most fortunate to have Roya Shanks, who gives a delightfully meticulous and vibrant performance as Lucia. Both characters turn out to be surprises in their own ways. In particular, Lucia proves herself to be more than the superior, sheltered novelist who hands Simon both a stay of execution and a box of chocolates as an incentive to let her interview him in their first meeting. In fact, she turns out to be near heroic in her persistent belief "in something finer than causes and movements." And the play is likable for the same reason.

It may seem strange to say that a young playwright navigates the world of a political assassin with more aplomb than the world of Walls's two twenty-somethings. But sometimes you need to step away from something, in time or location, to really see it clearly.

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