Criticize This!

Playwrights have been turning the tables on their critics ever since Athenian dramatists parodied one another's efforts 2,500 years ago. Whether being skewered by eighteenth-century British wit Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The Critic), lampooned by contemporary dramatist--and former reviewer himself--Tom Stoppard (The Real Inspector Hound) or indirectly taken to task by American playwright Joseph Kesselring (Arsenic and Old Lace), critics traditionally have been considered fair game in the mostly metaphorical blood sport of opinion-making.

In that spirit, it's a cautionary pleasure to meet professional bloodsucker Ian Lash, the central character in Harry Kondoleon's The Vampires. Ruthless enough to have severely panned his own brother's play, Ian has somehow earned said sibling's undying devotion in addition to his unmitigated ire. As Germinal Stage Denver's offbeat production reveals, that's just one of the many paradoxical hazards of baring one's theatrical soul.

As the play begins, we learn that Ian (William Berry) has evidently forced an actor to jump out of a window by saying less-than-glowing things about the erstwhile thespian. Vowing that he's now "through with journalism," Ian eventually agrees to help his brother, Ed (Dane Torbenson), revise his failed American epic, taking care to remind the bespectacled carpenter, "Your business is nailing wood together." Cheered by Ian's offer, Ed and his wife, Pat (Marta Barnard), leave Ian's house and promptly pitch a tent in his yard in the hopes that their impromptu front-lawn vigil will speed his efforts at literary surgery--which ultimately results in a two-page script (folded up, it fits under Ian's wristwatch) that, according to the sagacious reviewer, has been "essentialized."

Soon, Ian's wife, C.C. (Jenny MacDonald), decides that she'll do her part by designing the costumes for the planned preview production (which will, naturally, take place before an invited audience in the couple's living room). Breathlessly stringing together several critical buzzwords, the dizzy housewife tells Ed that the show's couture will be "interesting, imaginative--and respect your text." From time to time, Ed and Pat's punk-rocker daughter, Zivia (Jessica Monson), wanders in and out of Ian and C.C.'s house, plays jazz tunes on the stereo and eventually hooks up with Porter (John Seifert), a toga-clad East Indian philosopher.

For the remainder of the 100-minute production, the actors deliver a series of theatrical in-jokes and wicked observations. Phone conversations take place without the obligatory pauses to allow for the other party's unheard lines; Ed strikes up a Stanley Kowalski-like pose as his ample beer gut protrudes prominently over his swinging tool belt; a garish green light regularly illuminates Pat's countenance whenever she talks of a dead boy named Axel (an effect that takes a good-natured swipe at GSD's previous production The Master Builder); one character talks about dramatic art while using the terms "actually" and "in reality" to augment her reviewer-like comments; the costumes are all in incredibly poor taste (credit Sallie Diamond with fashioning the powder-blue knickers for a colonial soldier and mismatching Ed's red-striped outfits); and, near the end of Act Two, preparations for Ed's play get interrupted as four of the characters decide to strike up a frank sexual discussion (this being a thoroughly American play, after all).

Director Ed Baierlein elicits several strong portrayals from his talented performers, all of whom manage to keep straight faces while sending up all things theatrical. But their commendable efforts notwithstanding, Kondoleon's play is nonsensical to the point that it often becomes boring and difficult to follow. In some ways, that's probably just what the late playwright, poet and novelist had in mind when he penned his wacky sendup: Who wouldn't delight in confounding a bunch of scribes bent on discovering the "true" meaning of another writer's work? Still, there's a difference between sending the critics on a merry chase and orchestrating a convoluted tale that winds up losing the audience along the way. All in all, though, Baierlein and company provide enough frivolity to outweigh most of the playwright's bizarre philosophical ramblings. Even Ian, who says he decided long ago to "become indiscriminate" and "hate everything," would probably agree with that.


The Vampires, through May 9 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.

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Jim Lillie