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Well-Made Plays

Sophia Howes and Adrian Gatto in Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s). (photo by Chris Cavanagh)

Three pleasurable evenings at the theater

In the early 19th century, Eugène Scribe pioneered “The Well-made Play,” a tightly structured climactic drama in which the plot progressed by twists and turns—a purloined letter here, a forged will there—until we reached an emotional height and meltdown near the conclusion.

Originally intended as a term of admiration, by the end of the century “well-made play” was already synonymous with the hackneyed. And yet, “the well-made play” is still with us. Scribe provided the model for much of his own century’s Grand Opera; variations on the model inspired Henrick Ibsen, and Scribe’s twisting action in the form of “plot points” is today’s prevailing model for Hollywood script writing.

This week we see proof on Buffalo’s stages that a play need not be a literary masterwork to engage us and to provide first-rate entertainment.

Murder in Green Meadows, a thriller by Douglas Post in which an extramarital affair and a misplaced key are among the reversals, is being performed at Kaleidoscope Theatre at Medaille. Second Generation is presenting the almost scientifically constructed Some Girl(s) by Neil Labute at the New Phoenix. And talk about purloined letters and unexpected family secrets, Mary Kate O’Connell is currently appearing as Ann Landers in The Lady With All the Answers, a one-woman play by David Rambo at O’Connell & Company performing at the Park School. Each is brimming with dramatic pleasure; each is, in its way, decidedly lowbrow. Let’s call these theatrical guilty pleasures.

Murder in Green Meadows is the sort of play that’s most often served with dinner. Here, under the direction of Christopher Standart, we are treated to a tale that begins with a loving suburban couple, and ends with murder and deceit. Tension never flags as Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Stephanie Bax, Michael Seitz, and Becky Globus guide us down this treacherous path. I especially enjoyed seeing Miss Globus assert herself as the unlikely leading lady in this tale. She is a marvelously charismatic actress who commands our attention, even when doing nothing at all. The entire crew is strong and transcends the genre—or maybe they just surrender to it, in order to give us a riveting evening.

In Some Girl(s) Neil Labute demonstrates, once again—as he has in plays like Fat Pig, reasons to be pretty, and The Shape of Things—that people who are reprehensible can be more entertaining than those who are noble. Under the direction of Steve Copps, Adriano Gatto plays “Guy,” a self-absorbed writer who is about to get married and embarks on a mission to make up with four women he has previously dated and dumped. One he ditched right before the senior prom, another after her husband (and his employer) finds out, and so forth. These reunions go deliciously badly. And yes, of course, true to the well-made genre, Labute provides one excruciating twist near the end. Gatto is adorably loathsome as Guy. Meghan McAdam Gomez, Sophia Howes, Diane DiBernardo Blenk, and Kristin Bentley provide witty variations on the theme of a woman scorned.

Finally, Mary Kate O’Connell, a woman who looks nothing like Ann Landers, manages somehow to evoke the fabled advice columnist to a T. She nails the voice, and certainly the slightly superior tone as she impersonates a lady who had all the answers—for other people. Moreover, she looks like Ann Landers, thanks to Ann Marie Borgisi of Salon at the Commons, who designed and styled an Ann Landers wig that transforms Miss O’Connell.

We meet Landers on the night in 1975 when she must write a letter to her readers, informing them that the lady with all the answers has been unable to save her own marriage and is about to be divorced. The drama is sustained for two acts by Landers’s procrastination, reminiscences, and phone calls from her estranged husband; her daughter; and her identical twin sister, rival advice columnist Abigail Van Buren. Old Ann Landers letters and responses add to the fun. Ann Gayley has directed the production, keeping the action moving quickly and making full use of O’Connell’s equal gifts for comedy and sentiment.

For information about these very pleasurable evenings, see the On the Boards theater listing.