By David Bucci
Directed by Tricia Sexton
Theatre Annex Theatre
Seattle, Washington / (206) 728-0933

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

"The Velvet Rut" is a play for and about young people still in the process of defining their lives and their place in society. As one young pilgrim explains her own ambition, these kids are trying to find a way to live "like a real person." There's not much new here in terms of content or insight, but playwright David Bucci does have some real energy, an ear for the sound of his generation, and enough authenticity to make this assemblage of nearly random parts cohere into a loose montage of personalities, cultural influences and comic mayhem. This production also has the benefit of a cast that's better than the material, and as a result we end up enjoying the evening a bit more than it deserves.

Although the play intends to portray some 28 characters in four cities, there's never really much sense of place, and place has only a marginal importance to the characters anyway. The defining locales that are truly important are transient basement rooms, communal apartments, ramshackle studios with makeshift wiring over the kitchen sink, and nameless streets that lead from one place to another. Such detritus does give detail to the cast-off, second-hand, make-do role these people assume in the world. Which is to say, place is important only in the way that it reinforces that they have no place.

The action is essentially a sequence of sketches, and one of the plays greatest weaknesses is that relationships are never really developed. We see individuals and their friends, but we are always looking at them from the outside, more than they are looking at each other from the inside. Combined with the by now familiar substitution of an expletive for an idea , and the general lack of both insight and engagement, there's not much chance to really understand these people. The focus is much more on what they do than who they are. Still, there is some genuine amusement to be had.

For example, the opening piece, in which we are introduced to a young man who has created a costumed superhero alter-ego named "The Maestro", who combines his pro wrestling persona with hideously bad rap music. What really keeps this rather forced notion from being trite is the endearing performance of Matt Fontaine. The guy is just so sweet and innocent and lovable that his pitiful music is as charming as a Sunday school choir, and his superhero about as dangerous as a pair of Underoos. What is clearly ridiculous and pathetic comes across as harmless child's play.

There is an equally affecting performance given by Sonya Walker, a girl with a dream whose journey out of a small town may be overly familiar as dramatic territory. What Ms. Walker manages, however, is to make her performance so infused with light and hope and goodness that it all seems fresh, and we care once more for a story we already know too well. As with many of the characters in this play, I was intrigued enough by the person that I felt shorted by the sparse information that I was given.

A later segment, about a man whose mission is to record the most perfectly horrid audio possible was far too extended and pointless. Once you establish that you're going to explore something that's really, really bad, you either have to do something with it or about it. Instead, we have a couple of different sub-plots, one involving a semi-famous singer and the other involving a young woman who comes in, presumably to show how it's really done. But there's never a real dramatic structure here, so instead of building dramatic conflict, we just get re-statement with more volume.

That's pretty much the way this show goes, moving between fairly sharp, interesting bit of invention and belabored, often trite ideas carried on too long. Mr. Bucci has a voice, but not an especially rigorous intellect. I don't expect (or want) to be told what I should think or feel about a play's action, but I do appreciate a stronger sense of what the writer thinks and feels.

A large part of what keeps the event enjoyable is the commitment of the cast, and the generally solid direction by Tricia Sexton. While I often felt I knew what a scene would contain from too early on, and how it would get there, Ms. Sexton kept the pace brisk and the characters neatly defined. There was a good balance in the action, between the static and the frantic, and she made sure the actors brought their own depth to roles that were very often superficial.

"The Velvet Rut" is one of those plays that every generation writes for itself, and it seems to me this particular generation already has rather better plays. Even so, the recognition of types and circumstances that are a part of common experience is rewarding and amusing. This show aims at some pretty broad and easily hit targets, but it does so in a way that never takes itself too seriously, or asks us to pay too much attention. It's a minor work, about fairly unimportant people, with minimal insight and few surprises. But given this energetic and pleasant cast, well directed, it was a much more entertaining evening than it had any right to be.

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