History Lessons

Near the end of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll House, Nora is compelled to choose between living with her patronizing husband or leaving him (and her adoring children) in order to pursue an independent life of self-realization. After a gut-wrenching, twenty-minute battle of wills with her befuddled mate, Nora walks out the front door in an exit that's been known ever since as "the door slam heard around the world."

Ibsen, of course, knew how to cook up a potboiler, even if the Victorian-era playwrights and radio dramatists who later mimicked his cliffhanger technique tended to beat it to death. Lately, such melodramatic devices have again become the method of choice for playwrights wishing to dissect social issues by placing them in a historical context. (For instance, Oscar Wilde's turbulent life is the subject of two current plays in New York, including The Judas Kiss, starring Liam Neeson.)

It's an idea that appeals to playwright Mark Dunn, whose three-act drama Armistice Day is currently receiving its world premiere at Denver's Studio 44 Theater. Dunn's provocative play explores such timeless themes as social diversity, economic slavery and the irrepressible nature of love. Under the assured direction of Greg Ward, the two-hour-plus evening gets off to an encouraging start. And even though this half-baked society tale unravels in the latter half of the evening, Dunn might well be able to craft a first-rate play with a few months' worth of rewrites.

As the play begins, Frank Sheffield (Joe Miller) and Dr. Randolph Hollander (Jim Whitman) stagger into Randolph's airy Staten Island home, the living room of which features cherry-wood paneling, a curved wooden staircase and tasteful antiques (a splendid set by Charlie Packard). The two inebriated friends bemoan the closeted lifestyle that they're forced to lead as gay men in New York. Then Randolph declares that he intends to marry in order to please his relatives, as well as to avoid idle gossip among his patients. The two men quickly decide that Frank's sister, Kate (Denise Perry), would serve as an ideal, discreet mate for Randolph. A few days later Kate accepts their proposal (and the doctor's hastily drafted marriage contract) with one condition: Her wealthy husband must employ a fledgling music teacher, James Garrick (Scott Blackburn), to teach her how to play the violin.

As might be expected, the characters engage in a series of overlapping love affairs that eventually lead to a handful of emotionally charged confrontations (thankfully, though, no one pulls a cape in front of his face and sneers, "You must pay the rent!"). To his credit, Dunn never lectures us about the slow-moving wheels of social change. Nor does he rely on encyclopedic fact-mongering in order to lend credibility to his imaginative story. Apart from the occasional groaner (Frank and Randolph pronounce New York's most famous borough "Man-hattan"), the playwright's account of World War I-era big-city life rings true.

Once past the well-crafted first act, though, Dunn fails to keep us on the edge of our seats. The playwright orchestrates moments of crisis for his characters but rarely permits his quartet to face the music. In fact, the play lacks the sort of suspense that comes from an audience's being privy to the characters' decision-making processes. We're surprised, for instance, when we hear of one character's death. True, he was mugged. But the seriousness of his condition is lost on us until after the poor man expires. And death, when it comes in a melodrama, should be the result of a pitched battle, not an event that's described to us after the fact. That's Dragnet.

To their credit, Ward and his talented actors manage to make an entertaining evening out of Dunn's work in progress. Blackburn's sexually conflicted musician is at times affecting and at others warmly humorous. (It's a wonder that Blackburn is able to keep a straight face when he blurts out that his first homosexual experience was at the hands of an Iowa music professor named Dr. Howitzer.) As the headstrong but practical housewife, Perry effectively combines a quiet confidence with a yearning for acceptance. Miller's bumptious drifter is an occasionally touching mixture of wit and despair. And as the obstinate yet free-spirited head of the household, Whitman delivers a credible, if understated, portrayal.

For all the talk that one routinely hears about the lack of support for new plays and emerging playwrights, it's refreshing to see a local storefront theater take up the cause by actually putting its money where its mouth is. Which is, come to think of it, how a fellow named Ibsen got started.

Armistice Day, through June 7 at Studio 44, 2865 West 44th Avenue, 561-1793.

 
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