The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Robert Faires, January 20, 2012, Arts

Conversations While Dining Alone

Dougherty Arts Center Theatre, 1110 Barton Springs Rd., 447-4338
Through Jan. 29
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.

Have you ever had one of those moments when something about your life becomes clear in a way you're not expecting? You're in the midst of some routine activity – sitting in a fast-food joint, waiting in a doctor's office, driving down the street – and suddenly, that vague unease or fuzzy discontent you'd been feeling about yourself or your life or something in your world sharpens into focus and you see for the first time what's truly bothering you.

Such bolt-from-the-blue realizations are a pretty common phenomenon, as may be seen in Conversations While Dining Alone. Playwright-director Ken Johnson catalogues some two dozen of them, occurring to people in all walks of life, at all times, and in all kinds of places. He gives each one a turn in the spotlight to talk through some personal epiphany: the waitress beset by overly chatty customers, the attorney preoccupied with homeless people, the widower with regrets about giving away his late wife's dog, the wife desperate to spice up her moribund sex life, the male hustler antagonized by married men stepping out on their wives, and the Junior Leaguer with a habit. For the most part, their tales have no connection, their relationships no ties. They're disparate souls whose only real link is they've all caught a glimpse of themselves in a mirror that the cosmos just dropped in front of them and are driven to speak about it. Johnson doesn't offer many specifics in these characters' histories; he holds largely to the outline of the figure – the person's profession, marital status, defining experience or relationship with someone (or lack thereof) – and keeps each monologue as simple and straightforward as his staging. Scenes are set with a single piece of furniture or a prop; actors mostly stand still or sit. What matters are the thoughts and feelings given voice: revelations about life.

A number of pieces end with a recording of a familiar song – a pop hit or a hymn – and for some, the character even lip-synchs the words. In a sense, Johnson's sketches work much like pop songs; they capture universal emotional states in a condensed form, grabbing you with a hook (a character's intriguing action or line in place of a melody) and pulling you close with an expression of a situation or feeling to which most everyone can easily relate. And at three minutes apiece, they're about the length of what you'd play on a jukebox. That brevity also works in Johnson's favor with his cast of 12, which includes a broad range of acting experience. None of them have to sustain a deep or dark emotion, which might test their credibility. Instead, each of them offers their feelings quickly and goes, followed by another – like a succession of songs on the radio, collectively forming a mosaic of the human heart. Johnson has a long history in Austin's theatre community, with many of his contributions in the Seventies and Eighties significantly shaping the scene. How great to have him contributing still, sharing with us this swift parade of humanity coming to a knowledge of itself in mostly small yet meaningful ways.

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