Review: ‘Politics of Passion’

Potomac Theater Project's collection of Anthony Minghella's odds and ends, "Politics of Passion," is just another annotation. These three short pieces are writing exercises that pleasantly pass the time

Oh, right. Anthony Minghella used to write plays. Before making solemn period films about the doomed and beautiful, the director-scribe spent the 1980s penning legit successes like “Whale Music” and “A Little Like Drowning.” His stage writing has become a footnote to his career, and Potomac Theater Project’s collection of the writer’s odds and ends, “Politics of Passion,” is just another annotation. These three short pieces — presented in rep with Howard Barker’s “No End of Blame” in the transplanted D.C. company’s debut season in New York — are writing exercises that pleasantly pass the time.

To be fair, one of them — an excerpt from Minghella’s first film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply” — is delivered out of context. Severed from the rest of its screenplay, the quirky scene about a flirtatious young couple (Julia Proctor and Michael Wrynn Doyle) can only be an amuse bouche, giving us a taste of characters we might like to know and then whisking them away.

But in their brief stage time, Proctor and Doyle cast charming sparks as they hop on one foot while telling each other their life stories. Literally bouncing with the nervousness of their crush, they have enough sunny energy to make their silliness seem natural.

Director Cheryl Faraone — who has been co-a.d. of Potomac since its 1987 bow in Washington — uses the jumping to give this movie clip a theatrical jolt. She can’t find life, however, in “Hang Up,” a frequently staged 1987 radio play.

A phone call between a dysfunctional couple (MacLeod Andrews and Lauren Turner Kiel), the piece has plenty of eloquent lines but no dramatic movement. These two characters are miserable when they pick up the phone, and they’re still miserable 10 minutes later. Faraone exaggerates the lifelessness by placing her actors so far apart that we can’t watch both of them at the same time. We may as well be seeing two unrelated plays, since focusing on one performer means completely ignoring the other.

The final installment, 1988’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate,” boasts the most accomplished writing and is the only piece that adheres to PTP’s mission to produce political work. The playlet also lets the company — composed of both professionals and students from Vermont’s Middlebury College — display its chops. The troupe warrants attention with its compelling commitment to the silence in Minghella’s script.

Because her angry words haven’t fixed social problems, Gemma (Cassidy Freeman) stops talking altogether. Faraone builds her production around that choice. Freeman spends most of the play in a chair, face passive, surrounded by her castmates. When they are not performing, the other figures onstage are silent too, each sitting in a blank pose of meditation.

The wordless performers always outnumber the ones who speak, and that’s appropriate, since the thrust of Minghella’s argument is that closing your mouth allows you to learn the truth. No one who visits Gemma is comfortable just shutting up, so eventually Gemma learns all kinds of secrets.

In the show’s most affecting perf, Freeman makes a captivating listener, but in her occasional addresses to the audience, she burns with Gemma’s passionate new perspective. It’s exciting to watch her in her chair, wondering when she’ll burst forward and speak again.

In a minor role, college student Willie Orbison is almost as memorable. Playing a friend to Gemma’s husband Rob (James Matthew Ryan), Orbison acts with utter focus. His gaze on Rob, who can’t stop raging about his mute wife, is so intent and his movements — reaching into a bowl of celery sticks, uncrossing his legs — are so spare that he fully conveys his character’s rapt attention to his friend’s problems. It’s a fully realized perf that proves the cliche about no part being small.

Crucially, Orbison’s character also reminds us that Gemma isn’t the play’s only listener. Some people can be quiet without making a big show of it. Not that Minghella’s writing explores this complication, but even sketchy ideas can inspire good work.

Politics of Passion

Atlantic Stage 2; 79 seats; $18 top

Production

A Potomac Theater Project presentation of three short plays in one act by Anthony Minghella. Directed by Cheryl Faraone.

Creative

Sets, Aaron Gensler; costumes, Catherine Vigne; lighting, Hallie Zieselman; sound, Lucas Kavner; production stage manager, Elizabeth Kegley. Opened, reviewed June 26, 2007. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

With: MacLeod Andrews, Lauren Turner Kiel, Julia Proctor, Michael Wrynn Doyle, Cassidy Freeman, James Matthew Ryan, Tara Giordano, Jesse Hooker, Laura C. Harris, Willie Orbison, Colby DiSarro.
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