Most conversations we have in life could qualify as small talk. But right underneath that mild, inoffensive surface often lurk barely hidden agendas, dreams, and torments that go unspoken.
A good, well-produced play squeezes that small talk until it bleeds. But while there is ample mundane banter in A Loss of Roses, now being produced by Ensemble Theatre, neither the William Inge script nor the company of performers (with one notable exception) manages to coax more than a drop or two of plasma from this lengthy affair.
One of the lesser works from the man who wrote Picnic and Bus Stop, this short-lived Broadway play was turned into a 1963 movie bearing the racy title The Stripper. But A Loss of Roses has little of that zip, focusing on a mother, Helen, and her grown son Kenny living in Kansas during the Depression.
Although they're both employed, she as a nurse and he as an auto mechanic, they're clearly unsatisfied with their lives. Kenny chafes at life under his mother's roof, complaining about the pies she buys and her continual badgering about his getting married. But Kenny recently turned down a good job at an airplane plant in a town nearby, proving that he really didn't want to leave home (until he could prove himself the equal of his deceased father).
Soon the tension increases when sexy Lila, a friend of Helen and Kenny's former babysitter, arrives for a stay. Claiming to be an out-of-work actress, Lila beds down in Kenny's room and ignites his libido in a way that leads to further complications.
Trouble is, the Inge script meanders too long in the past, as every character kicks around personal histories while nothing much happens onstage. A moment of compelling confrontation at the start of Act Two, when Kenny puts some semi-aggressive moves on a reluctant Lila, gets lost in another torrent of pointless ramblings.
Some of this pointlessness must be laid at the feet of director Bernard Canepari, who doesn't adequately shape the beats of these talky scenes. In particular, when Helen (Julia Kolibab) and Lila (Amy Pawlukiewicz) are onstage together, the words pour out in an uninterrupted stream. They rarely take the time to let one thought settle or resonate before another is piled on top.
But there is one big standout in this production. In the role of Kenny, Jason Markouc carves out a natural and believable portrayal of this immature, grasping young man. Even though his character isn't written with great precision, Markouc inhabits every moment and makes Kenny so interesting, you wish you could follow him into another, better play.
In smaller roles, Robert M.K. Daniels and Douglas Kusak acquit themselves capably. But by the time we get to the curtain speech that explains the title, the talk-battered audience is likely to be less concerned about a loss of roses than it is about a loss of consciousness.