One Tasty, One Limp

At Live Theatre Workshop, the intense late-night show outshines the messy mainstage mystery

Tucked away in a little strip mall off Speedway Boulevard is a dedicated and talented crew that's always cooking up tasty treats.

It's called Live Theatre Workshop, and it's not a restaurant: These folks serve up an impressive buffet of theatrical dishes.

There are the full-length plays of all varieties. There are edgier offerings from their late-night Etcetera group. There is a series of shows geared toward children and families. And there is their Reader's Theatre, which several times a year serves up free staged readings of plays which might not otherwise be given a voice or find an audience.

Last Friday (Oct. 2), Etcetera opened John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. On Saturday, Agatha Christie's The Unexpected Guest marked the beginning of LTW's 2009-2010 mainstage season.

Shanley's play chronicles the strangest courtship you'll ever witness. It might also be the most intense 55 minutes you've spent in a theater in a long while.

The play actually has already started when you enter the house to take your seat. A youngish man and woman are seated on folding chairs, each at their own small tables, which are populated with beer and pretzels. They stare in opposite directions. Eventually, they both declare that they pretty much hate other people. Then they begin a conversation, albeit a hostile one. Amazingly, they begin to confess their transgressions to one another—and these are no small sins—all the while declaring that they don't care to hear what the other has to say.

These are broken people. Danny (Christopher Johnson, who also directs) is the personification of a re-loadable IED. Roberta (Danielle Dryer) is poisoned with shame.

We watch with fascination served with a side of horror. Danny and Roberta are so full of rage and shame, and they need to connect with ... something. And so they dream, of loving and being loved.

We are not told in any substantial detail how Danny and Roberta came to be as they are. Perhaps that's Shanley's way of saying we all are broken, differing only in degree. Still, we dream, and that is an unquestionable triumph of spirit. It's also probably the only reason human beings have lasted this long on the planet.

With minimal sets and props, Johnson and Dryer give thoughtful and compelling performances. Danny and Roberta are fumbling, mistrustful and ill-prepared, but they choose hope. Their dreams may be crazy or doomed, but there they are, their vapor lingering over the ruins.

Now, almost everyone loves a good whodunit, and no one serves 'em up with as much fun—and skill—as Agatha Christie.

But much to our dismay, this LTW dish is not so tasty. The Unexpected Guest is just not well-told by director Leslie J. Miller and her uneven cast.

In the opening moments, a man slumped over in a wheelchair occupies the dimly lit stage. Another man shines a flashlight through a window, repeatedly inquiring if anybody is home. In the shadowy corner of the room, a woman points a gun.

The play starts off suitably mysterious. Then, as these things go, the web of complications is woven—wide and strong enough, we hope, to capture the crook.

Unfortunately, many of the actors are not up to the task of fully engaging their characters—or the audience—and the tale becomes a take-your-sweet-time jigsaw puzzle rather than an on-the-edge-of-the-seats mystery thriller. Miller can't seem to find the right rhythm for the unfolding events. There is little tension and no increasing sense of urgency. The production is limp.

However, there are some bright spots. John Yackley gives us a few chuckles as Sgt. Cadwallader. Bill Epstein is odious as a caretaker who reveals the limits of his care whenever there might be money involved. Aaron Guisinger is solid as a very troubled young man, and Roberta Streicher brings a compelling focus to her character, Mrs. Warwick, mother of the murdered.

During both of these productions, the audience surrounds the actors and action. This setup presents some challenges to all involved—actors, directors and designers—but the whole crew has done a good job of addressing these challenges. However, the actors need to remember that in every moment, they have their back to some part of the audience, and they should bump up the volume and dial in the diction accordingly.

Over the years, LTW has shown us they can cook with the best of them—but not even the best restaurant with the most creative chefs get it all right all the time. While Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is intensely tasty, The Unexpected Guest is not.