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Friday, November 12, 2010

Elder Hostages Staged Reading

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 8:25 PM

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. held a staged reading last night that drew a few times more people than could fit in its usual performance space.

Staged readings, of course, are typically intimate affairs. The actors, scripts in hand, don't really move around that much. The staged reading is a setup generally reserved for testing new works in front of small audiences, not for packing 'em in.

But for this special performance of playwright Ray Werner's Elder Hostages, Mark Southers' company moved from its loft-style Downtown space to the more commodious confines of the New Hazlett Theater. One reason is, Werner has a lot of friends: He spent years as a successful ad man, and has more recently spent his time playing Irish folk music, baking bread, and helping launch foodie-heaven Strip District farmers' market Farmers @ The Firehouse.

The second reason: The suite of three one-act plays was billed as the first time on stage together for two of Pittsburgh's most venerable actors, Tom Atkins and Bingo O'Malley.

The men, both in their 70s, had acted in the same film once. But it's safe to say My Bloody Valentine 3-D didn't call upon the full range of their talents.

Atkins, after all, has a long list of film credits (including The Fog and Escape from New York). He's best known on local stages for playing Art Rooney, Sr., in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's hit one-man show The Chief. (He's also regularly played Scrooge here in the CLO's A Musical Christmas Carol.)

O'Malley, meanwhile, has been a local stage legend since the 1970s, earning raves for everything from edgy new work to Death of a Salesman.

So Atkins-plus-O'Malley turned some people out. And the plays were pretty impressive, too.

In the opening two-hander, "Mum's the Word," the two men played aged shut-in brothers, one of whom (portrayed by O'Malley) is forever seeking to wrest their father's last words from the other. It's a dark comedy filled with explicit literary references, as the brothers play a hotly contested game in which they try to stump each other with "obscure quotes by famous authors." John Shepard directed.

"Night Song," directed by Southers, had Atkins as the husband of a woman (Susie McGregor-Laine) stricken with dementia, and painfully contemplating a way to end their mutual suffering. 

And "Wandering Angus," a comedy, teamed Atkins and O'Malley again, this time with Teri Bridgett, as three infirm elders at a Port Authority-forsaken bus stop. Marci Woodruff directed.

For my money, O'Malley stole "Mum's the Word"; even with script in hand, he not only made you believe every word spoken by his embittered character, but showed you what it cost him to keep his secrets.

"Night Song," meanwhile, was a tour-de-force for Atkins and McGregor-Laine. The subject matter risked tumbling into sentimentality, but ended up earning your broken heart. McGregor-Laine nearly did so all by herself, even with dialogue that consisted mostly of "be," "buh," "you" and "yes."

"Wandering Angus" added a nice note of off-kilter humor. It also further showcased Werner's ear for dialogue as spoken by quite different characters.

The evening was a fundraiser for a planned full production of Elder Hostages next season at Pittsburgh Playwrights. We'll be lucky if it comes off, and luckier still if the show can swing the same all-star cast (or even any part thereof).

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