The first, Hidden in This Picture, is by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for such movies as The American President and A Few Good Men, and known for the snappy dialogue he wrote for a couple of television shows -- Sports Night and The West Wing. (He left the latter last year.) In this piece, a pair of friends who have frequently worked together in the theater as playwright and director are wrapping up a medium-budget movie. They've already sacrificed their original vision to the moneymen, represented on stage by Rueben, and now they're down to the final shot: a long take showing a group of Marines who've been doing war exercises on Guam, running along a beach on a diagonal while the sun sets behind them. Director Robert has staked his reputation and integrity on this several-minutes-long shot, which he intends as a poetic meditation on...well, something. As I watched, I couldn't help thinking of the pivotal scene in Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn! -- an extraordinary depiction of the struggle against colonialism -- in which Jose Dolores leads his ragtag army of rebels, exhausted but jubilant, along a stretch of white sand to the haunting music of Ennio Morricone.
Apparently, Robert has something similarly evocative in mind; he's hoping that this expensive piece of film will somehow redeem the entire project. Jeff, the playwright, remains cynical. And eventually, Robert's plans are frustrated by his comically inept assistant, C.J., and also by three cows that have wandered onto the scene.
The dialogue is sharp, with an edge of rue, and there's interesting use of repetition; once in a while, you feel things could be tightened or cut. John Lodico as Robert and Kent Randell as Jeff have good comic timing, and -- in their very different ways -- charm. Kellie Rae Rockey does well as the goony C.J., and so does Pete Nelson as Rueben, though both have moments when they're a touch hammy. Randell, too, approaches this dangerous edge when he urges Lodico to contemplate the significance of the cows' presence in Yale Drama School terms.
The Guest Lecturer is the more absurd and over-the-top of the two plays -- a mixture of reality and illusion, with lots of theater in-jokes tossed into the stew. A small regional theater, unable to sustain itself by staging the usual shows, has hit on the device of inviting in a series of guest lecturers and killing them, one by one, as a sort of sacrifice to the gods of theater. As a result of this practice, audiences have increased, and life in the town itself has improved. But Mona, who runs the theater, is beginning to dread the sacrifices, and the latest lecturer, Hartley, is also markedly unenthusiastic. The chairman of the theater board is a weaselly businessman named Fred who's determined to continue the slayings.
Author A.R. Gurney has a lot of fun with this. He invokes the gods of ancient myth who were sacrificed for the health and fertility of the community and reminds us that the roots of theater lie in ritual. He talks about the meaning of tragedy, hurls out all kinds of double entendres, uses terms like "catharsis." The script becomes more and more in-jokey and self-referential as Mona laments, "I'm tired of playing this part" and Hartley remarks -- with full awareness of all possible meanings of the phrase -- "I'm dying here." Minutes later, attempting to escape, he rips open the rear curtain, only to find a wall with the words "No Exit" painted on it. Eventually, the entire cast -- Jan Cleveland as the befuddled Mona, Chris Bleau as the lecturer, Wade Livingston as Fred and Raf Lopez tinkling the ivories -- tosses out all pretense of sustaining illusion, and the play devolves into a series of pranks.
The Guest Lecturer could use pruning. And I have a second quibble: Isn't there a famous Chekhov quote to the effect that if there's a gun on stage, at some point it has to go off? There was, and it didn't.
On the night I saw the play, the audience responded to the lack of a fourth wall and the fact that the cast was addressing them directly by inserting themselves into the action. They called out warnings and suggestions. A few men even uttered menacing growls as the lecturer attempted to escape through the auditorium. These antics periodically threatened to get out of hand, but they were also appropriate. In short, we had a high old good time.