REVIEW: SPLIT: BPF at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Director Ian Belknap, in his program notes for SPLIT, the final play in this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival, says upon first reading, he felt Ira Gamerman’s new play was reminiscent of Neil Simon/>/>. He is right, and for all the right reasons. As recent revivals of Simon’s old chestnuts The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the/>/> Park have shown us, his early comedies don’t stand up as well as one might expect. I have a feeling that his autobiographical works (namely the “B” plays) will more stand the test of time. Mr. Gamerman’s play is quite similar to those, particularly Biloxi Blues, believe it or not. So, Neil, if you read this… watch out!

SPLIT is a coming of age tale for the current generation, with an almost completely male sensibility. The “split” of the title takes on several meanings, even a hilarious one in act two, but to discuss them would be giving away too much of the plot. What I will tell you is that it concerns Adam, a 20-something with a lot of the same questions and fears all men have, but so few articulate. We all fear inadequacy, intimacy, showing sensitivity, and all kinds of sexual fears. And we all hide our fears with false bravado, coldness, and even imaginary friends. Adam is an everyman in that sense, much like Simon’s Eugene in the B plays. Gamerman creatively breaks the fourth wall, having Adam (and his fantasy alter ego) address us, ask us questions, expecting answers and even teasing us. This sense of audience participation adds a level of intimacy that is so great in live theatre, and it adds a sort of universality, automatically including those of us well past our 20’s. Gamerman also has a great ear for current lingo and comic timing. Overall, SPLIT is a fine play.

That is not to say there isn’t some room for improvement, both to the script and the direction. The first act is pretty long compared to the second. In fact, I was kind of surprised that there was an intermission (though the segue into it is dead-on clever) after finding out how short act two is. SPLIT, with revision, may be one of those plays best as an intermissionless piece, as it would allow the work to continue its flow. That and maybe taking a few things out of the jam-packed first act – just some judicious pruning and tightening. There are several times where the dialogue seems ad-libbed/improvised, with odd pauses and what comes across as unsure mumblings. (I am fully aware that many people, especially in conversation between friends, do this, but in a play that has moments of unassuredness in the plot, it confuses the issue.) Perhaps some of this is in Mr. Belnap’s direction, which generally has a natural feel, and maybe this is an attempt at more “natural”, but it doesn’t succeed. Lastly, and this is perhaps by natural design, being that as the playwright himself is only in his 20’s, a certain air of immaturity, beyond the characterization, pervades certain elements of the plot – Adam’s imaginary male friend known as Mr. Eskimo is way over the top – eons past clever, and ultimately not as funny the second time he appears. Gamerman’s female characters are also too heavily reliant on stereotypes, though at least some of the blame here goes to the direction for sure, because each female character does have momentary flashes of truth and some good words to say. But being male, and 20+, and (I have to believe) much like Adam himself, Gamerman’s central character and his best imaginary friend, Vince Vaughn…yes, that Vince Vaughn… (you’ll just have to see the play to understand that clever plot twist!) are superbly written, deep characters. And Gamerman proves that even a 24 year-old, living at home can be a hero, smart and interesting.

These issues aside, the play is no less than wonderful on all other accounts. Sets and lights (designed by Chris Attenborough and Colleen Beschen) are just perfect – minimalism a its meaningful best. Mr. Belnap has directed a mostly smooth running, fast-paced, and excellently focused production. That is saying a lot, considering that the script is nearly stream of consciousness. And if he doesn’t rein in a few of the characters enough, he has cast the play flawlessly (and entirely of Towson University students, which speaks volumes for that theatre program…). Only Michael Carothers as Mr. Eskimo and two other characters seems to have not gotten the note to take it down a notch or two. Perhaps spurred on by the laughter of the crowd, he hammed it up a bit much, but just a little less of everything would make a good performance an excellent one. In the interesting dual role of Adam’s girlfriend, and his mother, Tori Katz takes two stereotypes – the bubble headed blonde and the Jewish mother – and makes them fresh, and best of all, she manages to show us ever so subtly that the two characters do, in fact, have much in common, much to the chagrin of poor Adam. The other young lady in the cast, Liz Hamill, gets to play that third old standby- the unattainable girl who finally gives our hero a shot AND Adam’s fantasy version of her. Ms. Hamill is delightful, creating a well-rounded young woman that any guy would melt over, and has a ball with her sexy fantasy version.

Earlier in the week, I mentioned having seen breakout performances in Hope’s Arbor and Date with a Stranger (both at Spotlighters). Well, I am so pleased to say that lightning has struck a third time – with a double bolt. J. McCaul Baggett (can’t wait to see that name on an Equity card!) and Steve Polites, as Vince Vaughn and Adam respectively, are two more names on my “must see everything they do” list. Both young men are unbelievably talented, and so amazingly natural. Both are superb, and when they play close scenes together it is sheer theatrical brilliance. They are like Lucy and Ethel, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar and Felix (Simon’s Odd Couple might just work with these two). It may be months before I forget their priceless scenes at the end of act one and throughout act two. Baggett is also a wonderful vocal actor (calling Disney-Pixar!) who does no less than three imitations – a German therapist, Vince Vaughn (circa Swingers) and a dead-on crocodile guy from the Discovery Channel. And isn’t just the perfect imitation, it is the performance that goes with it. He has given the best supporting actor performance in local community theatre thus far in 2006. Bravo! And as our everyman and straight man to Baggett’s funny guy, Steve Polites carries the play and gives it an emotional, sweet center. There isn’t a man (who is completely honest with himself) who couldn’t find a bit of himself in Polites’ tour de force performance. I know I could relate. Mr. Polites is a master at underplaying, and at creating a character whose speech patterns are both natural and comedic. Not to belabor the Neil Simon/>/> comparison, but he is in many ways much like Matthew Broderick/>/> in those plays, plus a healthy dash of Ferris Bueller. (I’m showing my age, sorry.) Add to that a charming swagger, intense eyes and a believable portrayal of self-doubt, and you have the perfect union of actor to character.

Sadly, you only have 3 more chances to see this diamond in the rough. It plays this Friday, Saturday and Sunday only. I’d recommend reservations to guarantee a seat – it was nearly sold out on a Thursday night. Kudos also to Uncommon Voices for presenting the play and FPCT for giving it space to live. SPLIT is the reason Baltimore Playwrights Festival and Community Theater in this city thrives – it is young, vibrant and wonderful. Congratulations, Mr. Gamerman, Mr. Belnap and cast and crew!

PHOTO by Amy Jones: Steve Polites in SPLIT.

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