For the 15th time since 1927, the board of the Pulitzer Prize decided no plays were worthy of an award this year. (The fiction prize has been withheld 11 times.) That could be read as a poverty of good drama or the poverty of imagination of the culture authorities. The board accepts applications for, but does not track down, new plays where they are most likely to be found—the fecund fringe, with its small, dark houses and sense of conspiracy, where audiences sift through the wreckage of failed experiments and lackluster theater, searching for the good stuff so they can say, "I saw that back when."
The Chamber Theater, on the fourth floor of the Odd Fellows Hall, is such a place and currently premiering Told You Once (Told You a Hundred Times) by Juliet Waller Pruzan. Her conceits are seductively imaginative—a world where the wealthy hire personal narrators to shore up their conversations and the government subsidizes "imaginary friends" for poor children. (This last point is a little confusing: Tapestry, the play's poor girl, has hilariously tangible friends. In fact, they're the most robust characters in the play: they chain-smoke, drink beer, and teach little Tapestry sarcastic comebacks.) But most of Pruzan's focus is on the drabber story of Gary, a struggling professional narrator and the father of Tapestry (energetically played by sixth-grader Claire Parcham). Gary's wife is in prison (we never learn why) and he has neither the will nor the ability to rein in his charming, increasingly out-of-control daughter. Enter Mrs. Sparks (Therese Diekhans), Gary's new narration client who mercilessly browbeats Gary for sparing the rod and spoiling his child. Tapestry's friends (Pooper, Tooter, and Butt) are richer, more neglected subjects. Each briefly relates his life history—one was born in a cake, another was swept away by the sea—each of which is more interesting than the anemic push and pull between Gary and Mrs. Sparks.
The Swan, at Northwest Actors Studio, suffers from a similar anemia. Dora is a middle-aged woman and the mistress of the married, jealous Kevin (Dennis Kleinsmith, who shouts far more than he should in his role—everyone in this play shouts more than he should). Their already-unpleasant relationship is strained further by the arrival of Bill, a swan who slams into Dora's window one night. She adopts him and he slowly transforms into a talking swan-man hybrid. Kevin's loathing for Bill is as inexplicable as Dora's adoration. The play is really a series of arguments between Dora and Kevin, punctuated by Bill's poetic jabber about bugs and snow and love. Even Lyam White's impressive physicalization of Bill, with his honking and hissing and swan-like tumbling around the stage, cannot save the production from its own tedium. Like Told You Once, The Swan passes over the best stuff and lingers too long on dull adult squabbles.
Miss America: A Fugue Born in 1969, at Theater Schmeater, is another drama of the domestic impinged on by outside forces, but set in a more familiar world—Seattle, just before and during the WTO riots. In this age of tiny budgets (i.e., tiny casts), it's fun to watch a 14-member ensemble sprawling across the stage. Director Rob West has assembled a group of excellent actors: Ray Tagavilla (as a driven businessman who sells IP addresses for pornographers), Jane May (as a woman depressed by her adult-onset blindness), and Brandon Whitehead (as her devoted but frustrated husband), to name a few. Miss America opens with a Dostoyevskian pile of loose threads—the characters are all friends, spouses, or acquaintances—and we watch them weave together, their individual crises coming to a head in the concussion grenades and broken glass of the Battle in Seattle. Miss America, at two-and-a-quarter hours, is the longest of the three plays (although all were longer than they should have been); it was also the most conventional (no swan-men, no imaginary friends) and the most exciting. Playwright Josh Beerman's characters are conflicted people in troubling (sometimes comically so) situations. The scene between a deaf woman and her newly blind friend is awesome. And Tagavilla's collapse, when his porn-support job takes an unexpected turn, is harrowing.
Certainly, none of these plays will win a Pulitzer—forget bragging rights for having first seen one in a fringe house. Or in any Seattle theater. Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, one of the Pulitzer finalists dissed in the final voting, opens at ACT in May.firstname.lastname@example.org