Review: 4615 Theatre's PAPER BACKS and LIFE JACKET - A Thrilling, Pensieve Showcase

Paper Backs and Life Jacket run through February 26 at The Writer's Center.

By: Feb. 13, 2023

Review: 4615 Theatre's PAPER BACKS and LIFE JACKET - A Thrilling, Pensieve Showcase There is something unique about walking into a theatre and finding an artist's easel onstage, brushes stored bristles-up, accompanied by the strains of a Debussy piano piece in the pre-show music. It's the perfect mood-setting for the first of two one acts staged by 4615 Theatre at Bethesda's Writer's Center. That the evening will also feature a radical shift in mood and timbre adds to the thrill of an evening's repertory of two very distinct one-acts, written with two very distinctive sensibilities.

Tristan B. Willis' paper backs, the first offering, is a bitter-sweet reflection on a relationship which, like all too many relationships, begins in sweet intimacies only to head south, ending in considerable emotional wreckage and regret. A graceful pas-de-deux, with each lover mirroring the other (to Jordan Friend's beautiful but surreal soundtrack), opens the piece, and is contrasted by the inability of the two to maintain that kind of pure connection, either physically or emotionally.

The Artist (played with a wary peacefulness by Jessica Ludd), is focused like a laser on her canvases, peeking at her partner in the other room with a mirror to inspire her next stroke. At first she seems completely at ease with her lover, The Writer (played with tender self-absorption by Caro Dubberly), as they discuss the fate and the epic, 20-year commitment of one of The Writer's heroines-Odysseus' wife, Penelope.

That Penelope's devotion will come to shadow and ultimately distort their own relationship-who in the real world would wait that long? Is it fair to expect that kind of devotion from our own partners?-is one of the lessons we learn here. Tell-tale events, passing words, allow us to analyze where this relationship went wrong, and to empathize with their final solitary lives.

All of which leaves you pleasantly blind-sided when the next pair of actors on Sara Beth Hall's spartan set (all bare wood pallets and bare wood crates) emerge to regale us, full-throttle, with one of those Hemingway-esque, or rather Melville-esque, seafaring tales. With Life Jacket, Caridad Svich, a truly prolific writer and translator, has clearly mastered the informal banter of two small-town dudes on a spree, armed as they are with little more than cheap beer in the cooler and a devil-may-care attitude which nearly gets them both killed.

Jonathan Del Palmer, as 1, cuts a truly memorable figure, clearly more aware of the malevolent spirits that hide in the water, or lying in wait for them on the horizon. 1's grasp of the more mystical aspects of a Sunday on the water are in stark contrast to Eamon Patrick Walsh's character, 2. As becomes clear, for 2 the water is not just a refuge from troubles onshore, it also represents his triumph over his father, whose boat he has routinely taken out for joy rides for years. (Forget Freud, it's your dad's boat you want to steal, to really get back at the bastard).

Svich uses this cruise as an opportunity to reflect on the wreckage that our carelessness has wreaked on the sea, which very nearly gets its revenge. Are the boatmen sympathetic, with their own compelling stories? Absolutely; but then again, so has the sea. Director Jordan Friend has created an atmosphere that, with the aid of Pierce Stonburner's pinpoint lighting, has you on the edge of your seat.

Audiences rarely have the opportunity to navigate between the Scylla of relationships and the Charybdis of a wreck at sea, and 4615 Theatre's effort here, with both paper backs and Life Jacket, is not to be missed.

Production Photo: Caro Dubberly as The Writer, and Jessica Ludd as The Artist, in Tristan B. Willis' paper backs. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission between plays.

Paper Backs and Life Jacket run through February 26 at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets go to

Jonathan Del Palmer in "Life Jacket" by Caridad Svich. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography