With the first full-length professional production of “Fish or Cut Bait,” Darkhorse Theater and Mockingbird Public Theater jointly offer a sharp-witted, probing comedy by John Holleman, an emerging Southern playwright. Although overlong, the play captures both the humor and the pathos of two modern American men plagued, as the playwright puts it, by “too, too much leisure time.”
Originally a one-act, “Get a Stupid Answer,” winner of the 1992 Manhattan Punch Line One-Act Festival, it’s been expanded into a full-length comedy, directed by Robert Keifer, about two men stranded on an uncharted desert island, facing the inevitability of certain death. And they don’t even like each other.
Smythe (David Alford) and Jones (Brian Russell) were sailing on a budget cruise line when the inebriated Smythe was pitched overboard. When Jones, the ship’s lounge singer, jumped in to save the hapless passenger, the rope to the life preserver proved to be about 15 feet too short, and they both wound up floating away into the great beyond. The first act picks up with the castaways forging an existence amid the pillow-like sands of the island, waiting for rescue.
Russell captures the dissonant personality of Jones who, as a master of improv, is a man of both grating wit and brilliant spontaneity. “Ennui,” he deadpans, holding up an imaginary perfume bottle, “the fragrance that tells him you’re just too tired to care.”
As the regimented straight man Smythe, Alford is equally funny when playing victim to his island mate’s pranks and nonsensical theories about mind control. Bogus paranormal games, such as gambling with imaginary cards, are amusing time-dabblers for Jones. As the days pass, however, Smythe, who has commandeered the top position in their tiny hierarchy, grows obsessed with fabricating something out of nothing, and the play’s dark undertones bubble up to the surface in an intense, intimate portrayal of male bonding unbound.
“Fish or Cut Bait” has plenty of high comic moments, such as when, at Smythe’s behest, Jones vividly enacts a nail-biting championship baseball game between Italian Baroque composers and Russian Romantics. (The Italians triumph when Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky collide after Vivaldi hits a shallow pop-up to left field.)
Unfortunately, use of blackouts to depict the passage of time becomes problematic in the second act. As the characters grow increasingly desperate, and as testosterone manifests itself in mutual cruelty rather than in the earlier funny, libidinous dreams about women, the play stalls instead of charging forward to its surprise ending.
Holleman most certainly will hammer away at the structural flaws typical of a show’s first translation from page to stage. Because of its minimal casting, staging and lighting requirements, and because it offers a potential tour de force to actors in search of challenging male roles, the play is nicely fitted for touring and for playing limited runs in regional and university theaters.