Tom Strini
Next Act’s “Sleeping Country”

Half funny, half not

By - Mar 26th, 2011 01:33 am
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Angela Iannone, Betsy Skowbo in “A Sleeping Country.” Next Act Theatre photo.

Very funny wisecracks and one-liners, from the sorts of bigger-than-life characters we know from television and movies, abound in Next Act Theatre’s A Sleeping Country, which opened Friday (March 25).

Tami Workentin and Angela Iannone got most of the good lines, and they made them most of them. Workentine, all dolled-up business sexy, made a formidable Midge, a brassy, promiscuous psychiatrist not far removed from Sex and the City‘s Samantha. Iannone plays Isabella, an imperious, extravagantly elegant Italian contessa; if she weren’t doomed and reclusive, she would be an Italian Auntie Mame. Iannone, as always, is a miracle, and both actresses found exactly the right tone for their characters and stayed in the groove. Both resisted what was surely a mighty temptation to play the jokes to the house. Precise timing, a certain frank, flat tone and the way they maintained the theatrical moment (David Cecsarini directed) made for a lot of laughs. Rick Rasmussen’s chic sets fit the comedy neatly.

Tami Workentin and Betsy Skowbo in “A Sleeping Country.” Next Act photo.

If playwright Melanie Marnich had aspired to no more than laughs, A Sleeping Country would work nicely. But she did aspire to more and in so doing created credibility issues and disjunctures of tone that make it hard to stay with A Sleeping Country.

Betsy Skowbo plays Julia, whose severe insomnia is driving both her and fiancé Greg (Doug Jarecki) mad. Midge treats her for this malady. We gradually learn that Midge and Julia grew up together and are close friends. The credibility problems begin with their relationship.

Julia is whiny, mousy, and drab in every way; hard to imagine her hanging out with the sexy and aggressive Midge. Marnich also uses their dialogue to telegraph character traits. Julia speaks of Midge’s genius, and Midge speaks of Julia’s deep spirit. We’re supposed to merely accept this, but it rings false. We see no evidence of any such qualities in their behavior. Midge’s decidedly non-genius (OK, incredibly stupid) diagnosis of Julia’s insomnia prompts the patient to leave Greg, consider suicide, and dash off to Venice to find out whether she has a rare genetic insomnia in common with Countess Isabella Orsini.

Skowbo faced a daunting acting problem with Julia, as annoying a main character as I can recall. Julia makes Greg stay up all night to keep her company, then complains that he doesn’t understand her. She looks a mess. Almost every line Marnich assigned her calls for a pleading tone. Julia is just plain hard to take, and yet we’re supposed to care about her and believe that Greg, Midge, the Princess and even her man Franco (Jarecki, again — he was terrific in three roles) care, too. What do they see in her? We never find out.

Yards of heart-to-heart talks between Julia and Greg, rueful revelations of an empty inner life from Midge, and moony philosophical musings from Isabella kill the comedy buzz without transforming the characters into real people. Marnich, again, telegraphs but does not develop the darkness beneath the bright comedy on the surface, and Julia remains a sleep-starved cipher. Marnich tells us Julia has soul and depth, but we never see it, and without that the show falls down. It’s not Skowbo’s fault; it’s just not in the play.

Bottom line, A Sleeping Country is half Sex and the City and half Liftetime Network movie. And really — who wants to watch Lifetime?

A Sleeping Country runs at the Tenth Street Theater through April 17. For tickets and further information, visit Next Act’s website or call 414 278-7605.

Categories: A/C Feature 1, Theater

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