ACT’s Metaphor: a bright balloon that pops

Mar 07

Dead Metaphor 1
George Hampe is former military sniper Dean Trusk and Anthony Fusco is Oliver Denny, a military employment counselor in the world premiere of George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, an American Conservatory Theater production. Below: Sharon Lockwood (left) as Frannie Trusk, Fusco and René Augesen as Helen Denny make the best of an awkward church encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

It seems there are two plays battling it out in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Dead Metaphor by Canadian plawyright George F. Walker. Three of the characters are broadly comic – one foot in the real world, the other in a dark comedy of extremes. And the other three characters are just plain folks, getting by as best they can with anger, fear and desperation causing storms on a daily basis.

Both of those plays are pretty interesting, at least in Act 1. The comedy is especially biting as the three exaggerations – a politician running for reelection (the marvelous René Augesen getting to show of a real flair for biting comedy), her increasingly agitated husband (a grimly funny Anthony FuscoTom Bloom) acting erratically because of fatal tumor bearing down on his brain.

These three characters are able to wallow in the comedy extremes because the other three characters keep them grounded. Dean (George Hampe) is a military sniper returned from war in the Middle East. He’s been looking for gainful employment for months but with no luck. He’s about to re-marry his ex-wife (Rebekah Brockman), not because she’s pregnant but because she only divorced him while he was deployed because she couldn’t stomach the thought of being a military widow. And Dean’s mom (Sharon Lockwood doing wonders in a mostly thankless role) is suffering through her husband’s brain tumor-inspired dementia.

In the set-up, Walker’s play, under the keen direction of Irene Lewis, crackles with humor and potential. Whenever Augesen or Fusco is on stage, laughs are guaranteed as we get to know Helen Denny, Augesen’s unscrupulous, immoral candidate, and Fusco’s Oliver, a sensitive, intelligent man increasingly terrified by the monster his wife has become.

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When Dean goes to see Oliver about getting him a job, worlds collide and Dean ends up working as an assistant to Helen, much to the chagrin of Dean’s father, who, even in his addled state, can work up a full steam of hate directed toward conveniently conservative, opportunistic Helen and all the brain-dead politicos she represents. (“I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” is one piercing insult lobbed at Helen, and she absorbs it with astonishing aplomb.)

Act 2 starts to misfire as the satirical comedy and the real world begin to make uneasy intersections, and then, by the end, the whole play has self-destructed. It’s easy to feel compassion for Dean, who, as embodied by Hampe, is a well-adjusted young man who has been expertly trained for military murder but who can’t catch a break in real life. Potential employers tend to get jittery when they find out he was an effective sniper. Walker makes his point about the world our veterans face upon their return, but by the end, he has clouded that message and not taken Dean (or his ex-wife) into believable emotional terrain (even for a bleak comedy). Walker demonstrates some sharp shooting comedy then misses his target entirely.

Walker’s cop-out conclusion is just the last wrong turn of many in a act that expects us to make leaps involving plot and emotion that simply aren’t earned. So it’s a good thing these actors are so solid and the production itself is so slick (the dual turntables of Christopher Barreca’s prove incredibly effective). Otherwise, you might be tempted to say Dead Metaphor is dead not on arrival but on conclusion.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright George F. Walker for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor continues through March 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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