The 75-year-old Footlight Players are not known best for riding the bleeding edge of contemporary theatre. Charleston’s oldest theatre company, like the bulk of its patrons, has typically been about as edgy and au courant as a watermelon. During her brief stint as artistic director in 2002-03, Sheri Grace Wenger tried to drag the community theatre’s ossified audiences into the 21st century with contemporary fare like Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees In Honey Drown, but patrons mostly responded with stunned silence. If there’s anything those folks have traditionally cottoned to less than dirty words on stage, it’s an identifiably gay person on stage. (Unless of course it’s an over-the-top gay stereotype being sent-up for yuks, in which case, hoo boy!)
All of which makes their progressive new late-night Salt & Battery series this season particularly refreshing. The latest installment, local young playwright Michael Smallwood’s collection of one-acts collectively titled Talk: Three Dark Conversations, deserves shouting about simply for happening. The three playlets in Talk feature dark plot twists and didn’t-see-‘em-coming reveals, which are generally well crafted — except when you see ‘em coming, as in the third work, About Words.
In it, two pretty girls on a park bench find themselves being cheesily romanced by a passing narcissist and his hair (Adam Cloate). One of the girls (Michaela Landay) is mute, which allows Smallwood (also directing the show) some fun moments with her friend (Regan Blum) translating between the two. Unfortunately, once the expositing starts, the endgame comes clearly into sight, but the three actors manage to keep it lively and engaging, if not exactly surprising.
The first play on the bill, About Love, is also the best, though it, too, suffers from a late-act case of the drags brought on by heavy-handed exposition. The premise: an office containing Sally, a pretty young lady handcuffed to a desk (Gabrielle Munn), and Mark, a garrulous hostage-taker without any demands (Chess Schmidt). In fact, he’s been good enough to summon the police and Sally’s boyfriend (Noah Smith). Before said boyfriend can enter, though, Mark insists that Sally “talk” to him (get it?); he waves around a gun, smiles, and says he’s in love and wants to get to know her, since she brushed him off previously.
There’s some good writing in About Love, but once the clever plot twist is sprung — and it’s a pretty good one — the piece begins to collapse beneath the weight of all the explaining Mark has to do to justify it. A few hoary chestnuts that should have been purged from the script land with thuds (“There’s no such thing as normal” and “You won’t get away with this,” for example — ouch), but the young actors do their best to push through it all with a minimum of awkwardness and a hefty dose of elan.
The middle piece, About Control, begins with two detectives and a perp in an interrogation room. The supposedly seasoned detectives (the incongruously college-aged Josh Keller and Eric Collins) believe the perp — a dark-haired hottie code-named Zero (Brittany Brown) to be the leader of a terrorist cell planning an iminent attack. (Note to al Qaeda: disguise all your members as cute sorority types, and we’re finished.) The cliché-o-meter redlines here (“We’re prepared to use torture” and “You’re a loose cannon, Travis!” popped the springs), and some bad fight choreography combined with a ludicrous setup mostly doom this one. But congrats to the actors for keeping straight faces.
Both Footlight and Smallwood deserve gold stars for making Talk happen, regardless of its not unreasonable flaws. Smallwood’s got a gift for interesting setups and clever twists; he’s likely to crank out some excellent plays in the future, provided his characters don’t, well, talk so damned much. —PS