The Column Online


a one-act play by Christopher Durang

Art Centre Theatre

Directed by Eric Vale
Costumes by Pocket Sandwich Theatre


Suzan Dees - George Spelvin
Alese Watson-Johnson - Meg, the Stage Manager
Nicole Metcalf - Sarah Siddons
Lisa Simpson - Dame Ellen Terry
Frank Reyes - Henry Irving
Rich Hancock - Executioner
Quinn Watson - Introductions to the Audience Stage Manager

Reviewed Performance: 4/1/2011

Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Ok, now! How did they find a way into my head and record my nightmares for all to see? My only saving grace from being found out was that anyone who has ever "trod the boards" has had the same dreaded dream ? they're on a stage somewhere, audience waiting in front, and don't know the play or any lines, much less how they got there in the first place.

The king of Catholic angst, the embarrassing moment and a huge theatre aficionado, Christopher Durang had once again written a play that could ring true for anyone watching ? an awkward situation and what we would do to get out of it.

The Actor's Nightmare, being performed at the ArtCentre Theatre, did indeed begin awkwardly. The audience for their children's production was letting out 15 minutes before the curtain on this production and we were all jockeying for the door and space on the sidewalk. The back to back productions might explain the set pieces strewn around the small staging area in the office park building, turned theatre. A half-flight staircase, paper mache tree, roofed porch, and part of a library were placed loosely around the stage with an old black curtain as back wall.

One of two "stage managers" came on, coffee mug in hand, to deliver the curtain speech ? the now usual "all cell phones off, no noisy candy wrappers and no exiting during the show" lowdown. An audience member did cross the stage to exit for the bathroom. Upon her return, and attempting to sit back down, a second stage manager pushed her onstage, and calling her George, informed her she would be taking the place of an actor who broke his legs - and the nightmare began. Cued and maneuvered through several scenes of the play within a play, within a play, the reluctant actor at last surrendered and succumbed to her nightmare fate.

This production had some fine humorous moments and the evening's small audience laughed and giggled encouragingly, but I don't believe Director Eric Vale, and therefore the actors, understood the playwright's style of writing or his quirky humor. Durang is a contemporary absurdist and has a penchant for the exaggerated. His plays are fast-paced, high energy pieces but this production lacked both in a big way.

Dreams and nightmares move rapidly from place to place and, in The Actor's Nightmare, Durang had his characters in and out of plays from Noel Coward, Shakespeare, Beckett and Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons; enough to keep the actors hopping. The pacing, however was laborious, with cues you could drive a truck through (meaning slow). Usually this play would come in at around 30 minutes and play with another Durang one-act but, this time, ran alone at almost one hour. Some of the movements, gestures and facial expressions, especially by reluctant actor George, were small and timid and made even smaller by blocking the actors into dead lighting spots.

There was enough lighting instruments hung to flood the stage and it was exasperating to watch the actors perform in darkness. Where there was decent lighting, the actors did not know how to "find the light" so that it would illuminate their faces and not just their bodies. This was the director's responsibility to make sure his actors could be seen. Worst of all, there was no rise to the play's conclusion. The play had a powerful, underlying message mixed with all the absurdity and it was lost in this production.

Thankfully, those indiscretions were balanced with some good acting moments. Suzan Dees took on the role of George and the gender flip enabled some awkward and funny scenes, such as playing lover to both Amanda and Sybil in Private Lives and being in the weird position of having to kiss one of them. George was taking the place of actor "Edwin Booth" (Durang theatre joke) and it was actually appropriate that Dees was playing Hamlet as "Sarah Bernhardt", announced as another actress substitution, actually played Hamlet for many years (another inside theatre joke).

Dees had an obvious natural comic talent and timing but both desperately needed to be so, so much broader. The character was in an extremely absurd position, scenes were rapidly changing and repeating, all in front of an audience, like any good nightmare, but she expressed all that expected anxiety, fear and apprehension in small, slow movements and tiny expressions, eyes downward (and mostly unlit).

Alese Watson-Johnson, as the nightmare's stage manager, exhibited more of the energy necessary for the entire play, darting in and out to give George his lines, all the while trying to look like part of the play ? maid's uniform over stage manager black. Nicole Metcalf, playing actress Sarah Siddons, and Lisa Simpson as actress Dame Ellen Terry, both had funny moments as the Private Lives' women, though I had wished for more understanding of the Coward characters' exaggerated mannerisms as only he could write. Ms. Simpson found her comic talent in the character which was a blend of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days. Her na?ve earnestness and quirky expressions in playing the role made the audience giggle, though again, she was entirely in dim light.

Frank Reyes, as actor Henry Irving, played Hamlet's Horatio with smaltzy sincerity and, as an added character in this production; Rich Hancock's Executioner was "rich" in game show charm. Quinn Watson played the Introductions to the Audience Stage Manager. The playbill credited the writing of his speech to Bruce Kane. I had a severe negative reaction to the speech ? it was poorly written, rude, and rambled on far too long. I understood it was meant to be a humorous take on all theatre's curtain speeches but the laughter was uneasy and was not a great way to get an audience in the mood to watch a comedy, albeit a dark one. It needed major revision, Mr. Watson needed to memorize it or read it from his clipboard or, better yet, have it deleted all together.

There was no crew credits listed except for costumes borrowed from Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Pre-show music was brief and non-descript but the hopefully intentional static and hissing from the microphone during the house announcements of actor substitutions was funny.

To make The ArtCentre Theatre's performance of The Actor's Nightmare the wacky, absurd, humorous evening Durang intended will be in the hands of the director. He needs to guide his actors to find more energy, find the beautiful, subtle aspects of the play as written and raise the actors to a higher, broader level of comedy acting.

The Actor's Nightmare
The ArtsCentre Theatre, 5220 Village Creek Dr., Plano, TX 75093
Runs through April 10th

Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:30 pm
Tickets are $12 if purchased online or $15 at the door.
This is a bit unclear on their website so go to or
call 214-810-3228.