New Ground Theatre's Bad Habits is one of those rare local productions where the focus is on the writers rather than the actors, directors, or technical aspects. While a cast and crew, of course, are involved, the work gathers short plays written by local playwrights. Running a touch more than an hour, Thursday's performance showcased the promise of these local wordsmiths, while also revealing areas on which they need to focus as they work on their next pieces - the most notable being writing as people would actually speak.
The evening begins with author Ann Boaden's Bad Habits, the one-act from which this entire collection of four plays draws its name. Boaden's piece dramatizes a meeting between Ed Villarreal's Jason, a city assessor, and Rae Mary's Elizabeth, a homeowner late on her tax payments. Jason visits Elizabeth in an attempt to allow her to keep her (locally) famous family's home rather than lose it in a tax auction, and director Jan Schmall's pacing pleasantly matches that of the slowly paced existence of Elizabeth, who has little to do, it seems, but spend her days in her family's home. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two characters, who've never met before, progresses unnaturally quickly, and Elizabeth's "bad habits" seem a bit disconnected from her circumstances. Boaden attempts to create an emotional attachment to Elizabeth, but in my view, Jason was the only one moved by Elizabeth's plight, and by the end of the piece, I couldn't understand why even he was touched.
Michael Callahan's Her Story follows, with director Chris Jansen starting the piece with Patti Flaherty's Janice sitting on a stool, back-lit so that her face is in shadow. The aesthetic of a bright light on a shadowy figure is gripping and quite beautiful, and so, too, are Callahan's choices in word patterns. Despite Janice's repeated insistence that "this isn't a poem," the monologue drips with poetry in its eloquence and flow. Janice describes being in a tent with a snake and, later, with her father, in passages that seem representative of sexual encounters but are never made explicit; there's this constant sense of meaning just behind the surface of Callahan's words that's about to break through, but meaning that never quite reveals itself. Callahan doesn't cram ideas down his audience's throat, but rather allows his art to be interpreted individually by those viewing it, and it helps that the incomparable Flaherty is delivering his words. Speaking predominantly with a child's higher-pitched tones and inflections, with her breathy delivery evoking a sense of innocence, Flaherty punctuates Callahan's eerie lines with sudden shifts to gravelly forcefulness, and the effect is chilling and disturbing. Flaherty effectively fleshes out Callahan's troubling story, and while Her Story left me feeling quite uncomfortable, I was impressed with both of their efforts, and interested in seeing more of Callahan's works staged.
The third piece is Malnati Monday by Christopher Edward Moss. Directed by Schmall, this one-act takes place late on a Monday night, with Josh LeFebreve's Riley attempting to continue his weekly tradition of pizza and sports with Dana Moss-Peterson's Calvin, despite having nearly injured Calvin's pregnant girlfriend in a drunken incident. Moss' work concerns Riley's struggle to keep his best friend while refusing to lose him to a woman. But my problem was that Moss' point is unclear for so long that once I finally figured out the play was about a failing friendship, it didn't seem as poignant as it could've been, and matters aren't helped by Schmall's actors conversing with unnaturally slow, overly enunciated cadences. (To Moss-Peterson's credit, however, the performer manages to squeeze out every bit of humor from his lines, even from lines that barely contain any.)
Bad Habits' fourth offering is, fortunately, also its funniest, and ends the hour on an up note. Playwright Devin Hansen's Dr. Quinn follows John Turner's Mr. Robbins as he undergoes a vasectomy ... though it's unclear why he's having the procedure, as he admits to not being sexually active, despite having sexual urges evident in Robbins' physical reaction to Kylie Jansen's title character, and through a series of fourth-wall-breaking videos that director Chris Jansen inserts throughout the piece. While I'm still uncertain why Turner was recorded in a different location for every single one of these (perhaps two dozen) clips, the use of video is an interesting novelty and more amusing, I think, than Turner would be speaking directly to the audience from his bed. And while Hansen's work is sexually crass, it's also quite funny, aided by the humor in Turner's delivery. Hansen also avoids the inclination to create poignancy out of something that's not poignant, instead leaving us with a lighthearted laugh at the evening's end.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.