Square One

Steve Tesich's bitingly funny, dark play Square One' posits an oppressive U.S. frighteningly close to our country today.

Arts Review

Square One

Austin Playhouse Second Stage, through Feb. 5

Running Time: 1hr, 45 min

If you recognize the name Steve Tesich, it's probably because of his Oscar-winning screenplay for the popular coming-of-age film Breaking Away. Tesich also wrote more than a few plays before his untimely death in 1996, and this offering from the fairly new local company Storie Productions is one of Tesich's final efforts.

Not knowing the script, it's difficult to judge whether director Lorie Marsh's approach is Tesich's idea or her own. The play seems to be set in the United States of the 1940s or 1950s – or, perhaps, in a parallel universe. The country is undergoing "reconstruction," presumably after some national crisis, and patriotism, in the form of short, neat dogmatic statements and nifty little popular songs, is passed off as entertainment. Citizens are divided into stratified groups, and special housing and possessions are doled out to those up in the hierarchy. The aged are quarantined and abandoned to die in pain, and babies who grow ill are left to sink or swim on their own. In this oppressive atmosphere, third-class entertainer Adam meets and woos Dianne. He treats the courtship as a contract, and it appears that in this culture courtship is exactly that. The two seal the deal with a handshake, although Dianne, despite her consistent mouthing of the party line, seems to see past the propaganda to a deeper, darker truth that she can't quite articulate.

The Austin Playhouse Second Stage is a good venue for this play. The stage is wide and shallow, and the space is intimate in a somewhat crowded way. Chase Staggs' set design is impressive yet simple: Three white doors, side by side, back the stage, with black and gray squares on the floor echoed by similar black, white, and gray squares on the wall. Six television screens flash political pronouncements and set scenes with movie ads and still shots. The two actors, Scott Bate and Caroline St. Denis, have a great sense of tempo, of what's important and what isn't, and aren't afraid to let the story rest when it needs to. They're somewhat hampered by the set changes, which are laboriously slow, and the sound. It was difficult to tell whether someone was running cues or a tape was just being allowed to run, but in either case, it often left too-long periods of silence. In addition, director Marsh seems to have asked the actors to play a kind of screwball comedy "style," but given Tesich's bitingly funny, dark script, it might have been more interesting to allow the actors to deliver the lines in a more natural fashion and see what happened.

Prescience can be overrated – it isn't all that difficult to see that history will repeat itself until we either get our act together or perish. That said, Tesich's play, written 13 years ago, is frighteningly close to what's going on in our country right now. Without doing so overtly, he calls us to action, before none of us are allowed to act at all.

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Square One, Steve Tesich, Breaking Away, Storie Productions, Lorie Marsh, Austin Playhouse Second Stage, Chase Staggs, Scott Bate, Caroline St. Denis

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