With its battered floors and bright galleries, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is an unusual venue for theater, but in some ways a very fitting one for Lee Kalcheim's Defiled, or the Convenience of a Short-Haired Dog. In the first gallery -- which you must pass through to reach the stairs leading to the theater one floor up -- there's an exhibit of photographs by Jimi Billingsley: New York as seen through the grafitti-smeared windows of the elevated trains that rattle through Brooklyn and Queens. The fuzzed, silvery-gray circles, lines and slashes soften the edges of the city and almost seem to sanctify it. Upstairs, a square stage occupies the middle of a square room; to one side, through an open window, you glimpse branches and the black-navy night sky.
Director Judson Webb has taken control of this odd playing area -- complete with two sightline-marring posts -- and turned its limitations into strengths for the Theatre 13 production of Defiled. On the stage, he's created a quintessential old-fashioned library room, with two desks bearing green-shaded lamps and a card catalogue center back. The lights go out, police sirens blare, and red and blue lights flash through the windows on each side of the building. The effect is stunning.
Unfortunately, though, Kalcheim's script is far from stunning. The plot concerns librarian Harry Mendelssohn, who has rigged a crude dynamite bomb to a pillar and is threatening to blow up the library -- a magnificent and cherished civic structure -- if the card catalogue with which he has worked throughout his professional life is replaced by a computer. Enter Brian Dickey, a tired Irish cop who's close to retirement. We learn during the course of the play that he's married to a perennially interesting and unpredictable Italian woman; she cooks like an angel and worries about him daily. It's Dickey's job to prevent Harry from detonating his bomb and, if possible, to get him out safely.
This is a mildly intriguing setup, and every now and then there's a sliver of action. Mendelssohn insists on speaking to Dickey's wife; Dickey looks skeptical but finally hands him the phone. You can only imagine the bemusement of the woman on the other end, talking to the man whose actions threaten her husband's life, but the conversation sounds polite, low-key and kind of sweet. There's also a call from the girlfriend who used Mendelssohn to write her doctoral dissertation and then dumped him; she tries to get him to abandon his plan and reveals that she's now a travel agent. Toward the play's end, we think a rather sentimental resolution has been reached -- and then realize the playwright's tricked us. These moments work -- but between them, Defiled is a very static play.
A lot of us fret about the dumbing-down of our culture and the fact that people aren't reading much; we worry about the future of books and rhapsodize about the joys of the written word. And most of us grind our teeth at the ubiquity of chain stores, the fact that you can hardly visit a foreign city these days without encountering a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a T-Mobile office. (I found the ultimate in corporate chutzpah on a visit to Vienna a couple of years ago: a Starbucks directly opposite the venerable Hotel Sacher, home of the sachertorte. I consoled myself with the supposition that only tourists patronized the place, but I couldn't be sure.) So when Mendelssohn describes medieval Italian hill towns and urges Dickey's wife to visit the place where her parents were born before it's completely ruined, it resonates. But Mendelssohn is an annoying spokesman -- not just because he's whiny, neurotic and preachy, but also because his vision is so limited. He wants to stand for something important, something having to do with the future of civilization, but in his obsession with the card catalogue, his refusal to understand that computers can enhance as well as impede knowledge, he comes across not only as a Luddite, but as someone who wants to stop the process of change -- the very process of life.
It might be possible to empathize with a character this shlubby, but I never did. I'm not sure if the problem is entirely with the text, or if some of it lies in Phillip Van Scotter's performance, which is energetic and emotional but somehow lacking resonance and depth. Steve Grad seems a little too educated and middle-class for Dickey. I like it when actors play against type, but I missed the moments of robustness and authority you'd expect from an Irish cop -- even a weary one. (And from where I was sitting, I could see nothing of Grad but his raincoat-clad back for far, far too long.) Both actors deliver solid, respect-worthy performances, but inspired ones are required to ransom this extended lecture of a play.
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