Two From Texas: New Plays in Performance

Why go to the trouble of raising the funds and making the trip to the International Collegiate Theatre Festival, only to present plays nobody back home would want to see, much less the spoiled audiences at the super-competitive Fringe?

The attitudes were archaic; the dialogue pocked with clichés. The acting – well, these kids have a lot to learn yet.

Two from Texas: New Plays in Performance came to Edinburgh from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. There is a small but well-regarded drama department at that school, one that’s turned out lots of good actors and writers working in American regional theatre. You wouldn’t know that from the two plays they brought on show for a short run (now ended) at this summer’s ICTF. They weren’t exactly sterling examples of Texas theatre talent, on either the page or on the stage.

Hate Mail was written by the university’s playwright-in-residence, Jack Heifner, whose Vanities, starring a very young Kathy Bates, enjoyed a five-year off-Broadway run back in the 1970s. Billing Hate Mail as a “tribute” to playwright A.R. Gurney, Heifner has copied the style of Gurney’s loathsome Love Letters, that two-hander epistolary horror that serves as a vehicle for pairs of fading actors who’ve lost the ability to memorise (or are too lazy to).

Hate Mail covers a lifetime of sour correspondence between Penelope (Katt Akin) and Danny (Erik Freels-Vargas), a couple of spoiled rich kids who claim to despise each other but continue to pen missives full of insults in the pre-email era. Reading from scripts, Akin and Freels-Vargas are unseasoned actors still unsure what to do with their hands and feet. (Director Angela Bacarisse let them get away with far too much aimless wandering.)

The two gave sing-songy recitations of Heifner’s turgid dialogue, replete with cringe-making terms such as “fag hag” and “big black buck.” If Heifner wanted us to grow fond of Penny and Danny as they matured and formed a friendship, each dipping in and out of homosexual relationships (he calls her a “fat dyke,” she calls him a “faggot”), we did not. They’re horrible people and this play belongs in the dead letter office.

The second offering from this group, Mom and Dad, by Allison Day and Nick Pinelli, was no better. The gimmick was to have a young man, Jason Trevino, play the mother, and a young woman, Malena Gordo, portray the father in a rocky marriage. Putting him in a pink T-shirt and her in a blue one was the extent of creative choices by the design team.

There was no attempt to explore gender identities in this piece. The playwright had “her” become hysterical and “him” fail to understand why. The attitudes were archaic; the dialogue pocked with clichés. The acting – well, these kids have a lot to learn yet. A disappointment in every aspect.

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The Blurb

Two new humorous one-act plays by Texas playwrights all about the meaning of family, love, loss and life. Both plays look at male/female relationships: Hate Mail, by Broadway playwright Jack Heifner, hilariously follows two characters, Daniel and Penny, from childhood through marriage, affairs and beyond. Mom and Dad, by students Allison Day and Nick Pinelli, flips gender expectations for a young couple just starting a family. Both plays are intended for mature audiences.

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