It takes no small measure of self-confidence, and perhaps even recklessness, to present one's own plays along with one from an acknowledged master—deliberately or not, inevitable comparisons are invited. The short plays of Alex Dinelaris, though often strong, just don’t measure up to William Saroyan’s brilliant one-act, Hello Out There, which Mr. Dinelaris has chosen to close the bill of American Rapture: The Lonely Soul of A Crowded Nation. Mr. Dinelaris also directs the plays, all six of which share the themes of isolation and despair. Spin Cycle, the opening piece, is about a psychopath (Brad Fryman) who finds a famous talk-show personality (Donovan Patton) drunk on a late-night commuter train and decides to murder him. The first scene is riveting as the television personality struggles to overcome his own stupor and come to grips with his situation. He offers his assailant money. But it’s not money the attacker wants; it’s the perverted fame that society bestows upon people who commit infamous and heinous acts: “One day they don’t exist, and the next day, everybody knows their name. I mean, even if it’s only for a week. An hour. A minute. They’ve been born.” This is fascinating stuff. Yet, Mr. Dinelaris either loses confidence or interest in his ability to explore this plot and the next two scenes devolve into typical episodes of The Shield and The Practice, replete with highly implausible legal proceedings and even an unhinged police officer, played with sadistic, convincing relish by William Laney.
The next play, Blind Date, is a cute and clever but slight comedy—a sketch, really—about two young people whose self-destructive alter egos follow them around on their first date and make them more nervous than they already are. Rain is a sparse, derivative melodrama, a la Ghost, about a woman (Jane Cortney) whose dead boyfriend (Donovan Patton) appears to her at what would have been their ten-year high school reunion.
Juggling Jacqueline and Forgiven are the most interesting offerings from Mr. Dinelaris. In Juggling Jacqueline, a grief-stricken young man visits his therapist in the hopes of getting over his mother’s death; in Forgiven a middle-aged prostitute, Molly (Jane Cortney) decides to visit a church and confess her sins for the first time in 18 years. Ms. Cortney, peppering Molly’s shame with defiance, turns in a strong performance in this monologue.
Saroyan’s 1941 one-act, Hello Out There has greater depth and richness than any of its predecessors on the bill. A good-hearted young drifter (Stewart Walker) sits in a rural Texas jail cell, falsely accused of raping a local woman. Lonely, he calls out in the darkness, and is answered by the jailhouse cook, Emily, a young, homely outcast. She informs the drifter that, after being knocked unconscious, he’s been moved from jail to jail because the woman’s husband and some of his friends are planning to lynch him. This fact sets up an almost unbearable tension as the drifter tries to convince the girl to find a way to get the jailhouse key.
Diánna Martin is stellar as the naïve, mistreated, and dreamy young girl, mesmerized by the drifter’s big city tales. The impact of the anxiety-provoking spare, dark set by Kathryn Veillette, foregrounding Mr. Walker and his jail cell, was regrettably diminished by the fact that the bars were easily wide enough for him to step through.
Though perhaps a bit overly fond of eighties pop soundtracks to set up his scenes, Mr. Dinelaris is a savvy director. Spin Cycle, for example, benefits from having a table on either side of the stage, one for interrogation and the other as part of a television studio. This keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. All of the plays demonstrate a similar economy and precision timing.
Despite strong performances by those mentioned and by Brad Fryman, American Rapture suffers from unevenness, a tendency toward sentimentality, and an unfortunate debt to well-worn movie and television plots.