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BWW Review: OC's South Coast Repertory Offers World Premiere One-Man Play A SHOT RANG OUT

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A SHOT RANG OUT proves that some material, however passionately delivered, might be more suited for a TED talk rather than a stage production.

<a target=David Ivers" height="373" src="https://cloudimages.broadwayworld.com/upload13/2134181/scr_shot-pro3.jpg" width="560" />
David Ivers

After more than 18 months of theaters in Southern California (and beyond) going dark due to a global pandemic, it is certainly understandable that many of us expect some new material coming out of this extended intermission to reference that very thing upon our return to the theater. Such was the hope that I and, perhaps, many others in the audience clung to as we took our seats before the exposed, prop-filled stage of Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory for its first theatrical presentation.

Unfortunately, these expectations, at least for me, were a bit dashed. But, hey, Live Theater is back, baby!

While COVID nor the word "pandemic" is never specifically uttered even once in its script, playwright Richard Greenberg's latest play A SHOT RANG OUT: A Play In One Man---now continuing its world premiere production at SCR through November 6---makes it subtly known that this global crisis is very much still in the periphery, causing many of us to feel isolated in our own thoughts. Here, though, the world's forced quarantine merely serves as a wobbly raison d'être for an expressively-delivered though ultimately over-extended oral presentation about going at it alone.

Richly verbose with analytical but meandering tendencies, A SHOT RANG OUT---in its current, seemingly raw iteration---tries valiantly to talk (and talk) its way into being something far more interesting and rapturous than its pedigree suggests. To wit: the play was a special commission from a Tony Award-winning playwright with deep roots at this Orange County regional theater. Additionally, the play was also written specifically to be performed by one actor in mind: SCR's very own current Artistic Director David Ivers.

The motivation to present a one-man show now is certainly understandable. With most theaters---particularly regional theaters---now slowly re-opening but still stinging from a year-and-a-half of surviving through gutted production budgets, stalled ticket sales, and a long-empty theater, it seems logical that a theater would jump at the chance to produce something low-key and no-frills like this play as a first foray to welcoming cautious audiences back.

But is this it? A SHOT RANG OUT, under the direction of Tony Taccone, banks solely on the merits of Greenberg's content and Ivers' performance. Presented with little fanfare, the play features a bare-bones stage set (with the kind of exposed, organized chaos lights-and-props aesthetic one would expect from a "backstage-y" production) and, yes, a single actor dressed in "normal" dark-hued clothes (at least, "normal" for a serious "actor-y" guy) speaking directly to the audience.

<a target=David Ivers" height="373" src="https://cloudimages.broadwayworld.com/upload13/2134181/scr_shot-pro2.jpg" width="560" />
David Ivers

Smack-dab in the center of the stage is a hard-to-miss giant cardboard box emblazoned with the Amazon logo---oddly enough showing the only hint of color on stage.

As the play begins, Ivers---playing the role of an actor named "John"---casually walks on stage and smiles at the audience.

"Welcome back to the theater!" he delightfully drawls with glee. Of course, he is greeted with loud applause---a moment of genuine joy that we all share.

And thus begins John's breathless 85-minute-long monologue that, for me, felt like a cross between an info-packed college lecture, a curious TED Talk, and a self-indulgent, but, at times, self-effacing spoken-word performance.

In a bit of foreshadowing, he tells us humorously that he likes the format of this particular kind of theatrical gig he's been asked to produce because he gets to casually talk to us like we were just chatting---except we, the audience, don't get to talk back. At one point, he even compares the audience's current situation to that of trapped hostages. He also informs us that audience members fidgeting in their seats is a tell-tale sign of their discomfort.

And I even cringed a bit later when John tries to butter us up by saying that "audiences are heroes."

As he continues on, we learn vaguely that John (like, us, I guess) has been "out of commission for a while" but is excited by the prospect of being asked to produce a theatrical presentation for us that allows him to ruminate endlessly on his philosophical discoveries and observations while similarly isolated from the world. Who better than actors to express such sentiments; they, after all, have "mastered their emotions."

Like us, he spent a lot of time at home alone with his devices---both emotional and electronic. His oration soon meanders towards a pair of classic films that deeply resonated with him upon lockdown rewatch: Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch featuring the legendary Marilyn Monroe in her infamous up-blown skirt role, and Robert Miller's Any Wednesday starring Jane Fonda. Both films---which were also adapted from Broadway plays---involve plot lines that explore fragile marriages. This, naturally, sets him up to talk about the fragility of his own marriage, which he voices with regret and despair. We're meant to empathize with John who, perhaps, has been sitting in the muck of his jumbled emotions for far too long and desperately needs to let it all go, so to speak.

It's certainly not an unheard-of concept: theater as therapy. But was John's on-stage catharsis analyzing how a couple of old movies triggered him to think about his relationship with a woman named Jenny enough to keep us as audience members enthralled? For me, it honestly did not.

Almost immediately, I left wondering, is this play still a workshop? Is it a tryout for a still in-progress play that our orator wants to test out in front of a living, breathing (though masked) audience before refining it further---thus exposing us to the raw materials of a richer play that could, perhaps, better elicit deeper emotions still stinging from the pains of having been in isolation for so long?

Though there's no denying that Greenberg has a way with stylizing words into beautiful sentences rife with wit and wisdom (his plays TAKE ME OUT and THREE DAYS OF RAIN are both standouts for me), here his words feel like a jumbled notebook of broadly-painted bullet points that didn't get the kind of thoughtful or nuanced sophistication that his previous works have so eloquently displayed. Indulgent and a bit detached, A SHOT RANG OUT looks like an unfinished big picture that means well.

John's expanded monologue may have been cathartic for its orator, but for the audience, we're left mostly grasping for interest and connection, allowing for bits of subtle humor to pierce through the quiet---our own respite to feel something. Yes, we all indeed share in the communal excitement of returning to the theater, but we did so in the hopes that we get to relive what we loved about theater in the first place---the thrill of drama, the giddiness of comedic sights and sounds, and the shared experience of emotional gravitas. Instead of just speaking about these movies and personal events... how about visual aids via projections? Costume changes? Repurposed set pieces? Hell, even a significant lighting or sound cue...

A stage play---any dramatized play, for that matter---should keep us invested, not have my mind unexpectedly wander on several occasions throughout the night (though, I admit, the play did remind me to re-watch The Seven Year Itch and seek out Any Wednesday for future movie nights).

By the time the play arrives at its "big" visual pay-off, this late-stage punctuation feels a bit of a ho-hum letdown.

<a target=David Ivers" height="373" src="https://cloudimages.broadwayworld.com/upload13/2134181/scr_shot-pro1.jpg" width="560" />
David Ivers

Big kudos to Ivers, though, for his ecstatic delivery of all that dense Greenberg text. That amount of scene work, to be sure, is clearly present on stage. But while I very much appreciated the good intentions of this new play, I'm not sure it's ready for primetime just yet. As it stands in its current form as a "baby step" in returning to live theater performances, the play proves that some material, however passionately delivered, might not be suited for a full-on theatrical production.

18+ months of isolation, re-evaluation, and re-assessing may have been plenty of time to marinate in one's thoughts to birth such a play, but I feel A SHOT RANG OUT could actually use lots more loud bangs to really make an impact.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Jenny Graham for South Coast Repertory.

How To Get Tickets

Performances of the World Premiere production of Richard Greenberg's A SHOT RANG OUT continue at South Coast Repertory through November 6, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.


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