Staggering out of Ensemble Theatre's version of The Lucky Spot, I found myself so dispirited that I could barely choke down the conciliatory brie and crackers offered in the lobby.
Naturally, it's an occupational hazard for a reviewer to encounter theatrical roadkill on his travels. Often out of embarrassment, pity or respect for past accomplishments, we'll forego a cold-hearted autopsy of the victim and instead perform a metaphorical tap dance, attempting a diversionary production number that focuses instead on the history of theater, the leading lady's remarkable resemblance to Groucho Marx or the results of a recent election.
However, the catastrophe transpiring on the Brooks stage is no Grade Z horror movie suitable for catty quips. Rather, on view was the sponsoring theater's systematic drowning of seven talented performers. This is a misdeed that needs to be addressed and mourned. It is a theater company's first obligation when selecting a script to give its production the time, thought and energy needed for a valid realization. In assembling its repertory over the past few years, Ensemble has acted like a starving man in a gourmet restaurant, driven mad with hunger, indiscriminately gobbling up extravagant dishes he can neither appreciate, afford nor digest, and that he only ends messily regurgitating.
Occasionally, this panic-mode technique pays off, as it did when seasoned pros Dorothy and Reuben Silver, Charles Kartali and Joel Hammer were employed by Ensemble to give us a brilliant staging of Arthur Miller's The Price. Such a fortuitous meeting of strong talent and strong script has occurred a few other times. But The Lucky Spot is a weak play that needs more than the presence of an able and willing cast.
It's another in the endless series of plays that inflate the melancholy charm of eccentric losers. Author Beth Henley writes like a third-rate William Inge besotted with a course she took in Southern-gothic whimsy. Set in Louisiana during the Great Depression, the work presents such de rigueur stock figures as the larger-than-life gambler, the 15-year-old waif he wins in a poker game, his tempestuous alienated wife renowned for cheating at cards and throwing people off balconies, the over-the-hill dance-hall hostess and, of course, the lovelorn young man cursed with eternal virginity and the name of Turnip. If you've seen Inge's Bus Stop, you know the routine: just mix and match your losers.
The most essential thing to make this kind of piece work is a sense of atmosphere, time and place. And this is perhaps where the Ensemble production is at its high-school weakest. For example, central to the story is a jukebox that, at a critical point, gets shot up, which here becomes a radio that goes undamaged. Add supposedly serious fight scenes which more closely resemble the slapstick antics of Larry, Curly and Moe. Worst of all is the suspicion that the actors were simply handed scripts and left entirely to their own devices. While each company member bravely manages a moment of truth, without cohesive blocking or pacing, they seem to be performing under water and are finally engulfed by the complete lack of guidance or direction.
Theater as an art form demands a certain level of professional craft. Those practitioners who consistently fail to reach that level do neither the form nor their audiences any justice.
The Lucky Spot Through December 7 Ensemble Theatre at Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Ave. 216.321.2930