By Bryan LaPort
Directed by Chryste Call
troupe du jour
The Union Garage, Seattle WA 98122

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

First of all, let's acknowledge that playwriting is a damn hard craft. A play is a mechanical construction that should give the appearance of being spontaneous, should seem to have natural action, and needs to be populated by characters that carry focused intentions that advance the story through deliberate conflict -- conflict that reveals both themes and individuals...and it needs to speak in a language which is more powerful and deliberate than common speech, but never feels contrived or false. Even more daunting, the play should embody ideas and imaginings fully conceived by the author, but never obvious to or imposed upon the audience. Finally, in the most intimidating of the form's demands, the final play will reveal far more about the author than he or she ever imagined, and every misstep or miscalculation will stand in physical reality, and speak its own identity. The truth of the play will be enacted, whether the playwright intended to show it or not.

All of which is to say that Bryan Laport's new drama, "Squatters" is a first play that fails, but it is not a dishonorable failure. His idea is intriguing enough, if not exactly original. He posits a situation in which a couple finds itself intruded upon by unexplained, uninvited guests, who are in fact their own lesser or earlier selves. He adds a couple of parent figures, a father who is crude and dangerous and a mother who speaks in the jabberwocky of a stroke victim. The lesser selves confront and often overcome the active selves, and it leads to discussions on topics ranging from interpersonal intimacy to advanced theories of physics. The circumstance initiating all of the action is the breakdown of a marriage, in part because of the loss of a child. The climax involves a gun. There is an uncomfortable mix of theatrical style, at times wanting to borrow from post-modern techniques and at other times firmly in the grip of 19th Century melodrama. The characters are paired so that we see the husband with the more assertive male intruder, the wife with her younger self, the father with the son and so forth. Each of the characters have a distinctive tone, which is a good part of their identity: the husband restrained and decent, the wife elegant and confident, the father a redneck good old boy, the male intruder brash and insistent, the younger wife an insecure and gawky child. There is all the material needed for a play.

The production offers some quite good performances, and solid, well-paced direction by Chryste Call. In particular, Dave Elvin does a bang-up job with Charlie, the dangerous intruder. It is a problem of the play that the "other" selves are more vivid and more interesting than the originals, but it's made even more apparent by the strength of this performance against the rather drab and constrained Bobby, played by Dmitri Arbacauskas. Likewise, Kathleen Schroeder gives the wife Katherine a polished and controlled exterior, which nicely contrasts with the younger self, Baby (who is probably also their lost child) played by Angela Grillo. The problem is that she's not especially dynamic, nor does she convey the depth of pain and loss inherent in the death of a marriage, let alone a child. Dennis Kleinsmith gives the father Jeb the usual Billy Bob mannerisms, but we get the character pretty quickly, and there's little more to discover after that. As the stroke-addled Ma, Betty Campbell does excellent work, making her words create their own peculiar music, and giving the character a clear focus and identity, for all the sad befuddlement.

Where this play really falls short, however, and where the playwright is too clearly revealed, is in the way in which his ideas become impersonations of characters, and when they are obviously the voices of a writer's notions rather than the speech of their own motivations. At times the writing is just plain bad, such as when Bobby says to his wife Catherine, "You are a very easy person to like and a very difficult person to know". Other times, it's self-indulgent, such as when the characters actually speak about how they're written. It's not sustained enough to earn its place as style, and too inconsistent to be a flair. The verbal style varies from short, clipped interchanges in one scene to extended dissertations in another, and we are always rather more aware that we are hearing the author's voice than that of the characters. Similarly, this obviously very intelligent man has inserted long passages in which he cogitates on various scientific possibilities, telling us more about his interests than about his construction of the drama. Beyond that, most of the play is just talk, and when he does interject the clichÈd dramatics of a gun, it feels desperate and totally inauthentic.

In the program notes, it's said that Mr. Laport's first play has taken thirty years to bring to fruition. Rather like the yacht built in the basement, it is too large and too ill-designed to really float. But you can certainly see all the hours of work, laboring in solitude and with great dreams, that have gone into its construction.

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