Theatre Review: PRT's "Praising What Is Lost"

In the next issue of Orlando Weekly, I use my Live Active Cultures column to discuss the spring sprouting of new theater from some Orlando International Fringe Festival favorites. A prime example, which I didn't have space to include in print, is the latest work from Playwrights' Round Table.

For fifteen years, PRT has been Central Florida's primary organization dedicated to the development of new plays, previously-unseen plays from emerging authors. PRT's signature products have long been their staged readings, and Launch and Summer Shorts one-act series. But this month they've finally taken the leap into full-length, fully realized productions by mounting David Strauss' Praising What Is Lost at Orlando Shakes (now through April 1).

The show begins with Missed Connections, a comic skit by Marj O'Neill-Butler about a couple who meet-cute through a mistaken personals advertisement. The young actors (Parris Baker & Cherise James) are green but charismatic, and director Avis-Marie Barnes gives them some cute choices to play. Though I appreciate a light appetizer before a heavy meal, I'm not certain this trifle set the right tone for the serious show that followed.

For the main feature, scriptwriter Strauss (Fringe's Annie Todd, GOAT's Reservoir Dogs) stars as Marc, a history professor whose beloved grandfather Samuel (Ron Schneider) is in a nursing home, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's. Dr. Gabriel (Darryl Pickett) offers hope in the form of an experimental drug trial, but over-cautious Marc is too paralyzed by his psychic constipation to exercise his power of attorney and approve Samuel's participation. Torn between his estranged lawyer-shark sister Beth (Sara Jones) and his saintly supportive fiancée Rachel (Jennifer Rea), Marc finally reaches a decision, but with spooky unintended consequences that challenge the very notion of individuality.

Praising What Is Lost is an ambitious yet intimate play with an intriguing, relevant premise. It approaches important themes -- our universal fear of forgetting, the nature of collective unconscious, the role of memory in defining personhood -- from a unique sci-fi inflected angle. And director Laurel Clark has assembled some fine actors for the production; Jones' overbearing exuberance can be quite amusing, and Schneider is subtly stunning in his swings between engagement and agitation.

I've watched Strauss' evolution as a writer for several years, and while my enjoyment of his works has been uneven, I appreciate his efforts to expand his repertoire with this script. Unfortunately, the emotional depth he's trying to achieve here is undermined by a propensity towards unrealistic verbosity. Characters don't communicate so much as recite dense exposition in each other's general direction, with many monologues resembling rambling Facebook postings; it might read well on paper, but doesn't play on stage.

I'm enough of a hard-core geek to get all the Marty McFly/Back to the Future Part III and Blue Sun/Firefly references. But they feel more like nerd name-checking than genuine character-building, as if Kevin Smith's pop-culture rants had their emotional insight excised. The remainder of the dialogue depends on sports trivia, obscure local references, and elaborately deconstructed quotes and cliches, usually at the expense of simple human connection. It doesn't help matters that the script is structured more like a movie than a small-scale stage play, with unnecessary flashbacks that should be excised, and excruciatingly pace-sapping scene transitions. The end result aims to be snappy, but ends up sounding strained; as Strauss' character presciently quips, "Nobody can be as funny as I think I am."

Flaws aside, I applaud Strauss for putting himself out there, and PRT's members (especially president Chuck Dent) for preserving the late John Goring's promotion of promising new talent. With Broadway becoming increasingly hostile to new plays not based on proven properties, we are all dependent on pioneers like PRT to cultivate the next generation of fresh culture.

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