Alex Dawson's Room To Swing An Axe is a stark story of self-destruction told by Jack, a womanizing dipsomaniac obsessed with Bob Fosse, and Gaz, the enabling producer obsessed with him. Written and directed by Dawson from his own short story, there is very little action in the 45-minute work, as the story of Jack's self-induced downfall is told in a series of alternating monologues. And yet the writing is so vivid, so clear, and so full of emotion that the dreary world of alcoholic self-destruction is brought to life with beautifully bleak imagery. That the production betrays its literary origins in no way detracts from the overall power of the piece, nor from the startling, insightful performances from Dawson as Jack and especially Craig McNulty as Gaz, his enabling producer.
The St. Mark's Studio Theatre basement space is nearly Dickensian in its awfulness, yet it worked to the advantage of both Room To Swing An Axe and The Art Of Lingering, Gareth Smith's one-act comedy that followed it. In Room To Swing An Axe, simple pieces of bar furniture, alternating cold (for Jack) and warm (for Gaz) spotlights, and a perpetual haze of (mercifully herbal) cigarette smoke added to the overall unsettling effect, abetted by well-chosen music (including selections from the original cast recording of Fosse's 1975 Chicago) and simple but appropriate costumes.
Smith's' frantic The Art of Lingering suffered by comparison. Essentially a sitcom version of David Mamet's GlenGarry Glen Ross set in a bar, the work never transcended its one-joke premise, settling for dialogue as stale as the (non-herbal) cigarettes the characters constantly smoked, jokes that relied on "good ol' boy" camaraderie and woman-bashing for laughs, and performances, that though committed and energetic, never fully found something new to imbue their stock characters with. What makes Mamet work so brilliantly, and what Smith didn't quite capture with his script, is not the constant spewing of four-letter words and oafish male behavior but the recognizably human despair that fuels Mamet's characters and situations (see Mamet's version of The Winslow Boy, for example).
As the production notes for The Art of Lingering state: "Salesmen, bartenders and one bag of goldfish. What does it all mean?" What does it all mean? Even two directors (Kelly Gillespie and Jane Hardy) couldn't make it all clear, and the production virtually collapsed into a haze of smoke and noise, signifying, well, nothing.
(Also featuring Morgan Baker, Bruce Borman, Alex Fry, Lynde Houck, Jennifer Huttenberger, Rich Odell, and Joseph Pacillo. Scenic design credited to Jack Mount James, sound design to Flynn Hundhausen. Costumes and lighting uncredited.)
Room to Swing an Axe
The Art of Lingering
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Copyright 2000 Julie Halpern