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StageStruck: Compare and Contrast

Two plays inhabit the same time period but different worlds.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012
T. Charles Erickson Photo
Vince Nappo and Kelly D. Felthous in Boeing-Boeing at Harford Stage

There is a house in New Orleans they call the Blind Pig's Sty. And there is a penthouse in Gay Paree... which has nothing in common with that other house—except there's presumably lots of offstage sex in both. What ties the two together, tenuously and temporarily, is the plays they're in, both running in Hartford, which I happened to see back to back last weekend. And that coincidence inevitably produced the old schooldays urge to compare and contrast.

Mind you, The Sty of the Blind Pig, at TheaterWorks through Feb. 26 (theaterworkshartford.org, 860-527-7838), isn't actually about the Big Easy whorehouse that gives the play its title. But the dingy Chicago tenement where it does take place clashes just as sharply with the posh Parisian flat that's the setting for Boeing-Boeing, which ends its run at Hartford Stage this weekend (hartfordstage.org, 860-527-5151).

Sty is a gritty drama about an African-American family who lean on religion, the lottery and whiskey to keep hope alive, until a mysterious blind stranger changes everything. And Boeing is a frothy all-white farce about a wealthy bachelor who juggles three fiancées, until the airborne ladies all happen to fall to earth simultaneously.

There are, in fact, a few points of convergence between the two plays. Aside from the prodigious amounts of whiskey imbibed in both, they take place in exactly the same time period, though in utterly different worlds. Marc Camoletti's Boeing-Boeing is a glossy 1950s period piece built on clichés out of a smutty joke. Bernard (Vince Nappo)'s three girlfriends are all airline stewardesses of the era: Gloria (Kelly D. Felthous), the petite American blonde who flies for TWA; Gabriella (Kathleen McElfresh), the leggy Italian brunette (Alitalia), and Gretchen (Claire Brownell), the Amazonian German redhead (Lufthansa).

The Sty of the Blind Pig, by Philip Hayes Dean, takes place in 1956, the year of the Rosa Parks-inspired Montgomery bus boycott. Where Boeing's three "girls" are initially unaware of each other's existence, this play's key trio can't stay out of each other's hair. There's manipulative, church-going Weedy (Brenda Thomas), her unmarried daughter Alberta (Krystel Lucas), struggling to untie the maternal apron strings, and Weedy's brother Doc (Jonathan Earl Peck), a boasting dreamer. Then there's Jordan (Eden Marryshow), a blind bluesman who (of course) sees things others can't. The play is heavy laden with biblical metaphors of cleansing and deliverance: Jordan's name and that of the woman he's fruitlessly seeking, "Grace Waters"; the dead Christ figure loved and mourned by Alberta, "Emmanuel Fisher."

For its part, Boeing is weighed down by is creaky premise and clichéd characters (including Denny Dillon's mouthy French maid and Ryan Farley's goofy sidekick) and, in this production, by a leading man with none of the charm, style or even good looks to match his Lothario role.

There's another, rather surprising parallel: both shows are quite funny. You'd expect that from Boeing, since that's its sole purpose. But there are actually more laughs per minute in Sty, whose fraught drama is liberally spiced with laugh-out-loud humor.

The two directors are regular hands at the respective theaters. Maxwell Williams, a master of physical comedy, gets the most out of his boing-boing contraption, though it takes most of Act One to get it up to speed. Tazewell Thompson helps his pitch-perfect cast negotiate the script's uneasy balance between grit, symbolism and guffaws.

Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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