theater: Zoning Out 

Clever and engaging, "The Crumple Zone" unfortunately crumbles in the end

It's all the more disappointing because the first three-quarters of Buddy Thomas' script are so well-written. Even within small pieces of scenes, there are numerous subtle shifts of the tone between the characters. And the entire show is saturated with pop-culture references that never seem to descend into clichés.

The story takes place in an apartment on Staten Island. Early in the first act, we discover that Alex (Shon M. Stacy), an unlikely shopping mall Santa Claus, is cheating on Matt (Chris McKinney). As Alex's illicit new lover, S. Wayne Melnick plays Buck with just enough creepiness to highlight one of the play's major themes: the irrationality of love.

Terry (Steve Moore), their ugly duckling friend, attempts to divert the impending disaster by nudging Buck aside (and into his own bed if possible). Quite predictably, he fails, and the story quickly spins out of control.

In other words, we're dealing with a stock romantic plot. But unlike a Doris Day movie, the language here is coarse, and all of the characters are gay men. But the playwright wisely isn't reaching for social commentary. He's simply telling a story about people who happen to be gay.

Moore carries the show with his manic delivery and comic-sad persona. He even begins the second act with a hilarious lip-sync/dance rendition of "Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You)." His capacity for physical humor becomes even more apparent when he pulls some garland from the Christmas tree and includes it in the dance.

After this high point, the script quickly loses momentum. Though there are enough remaining gags to keep the show afloat for a time, it finally gives out with a weak narrative about the nature of relationships. And though their affair triggered the story in the first place, Alex and Buck inexplicably disappear from the stage entirely.

The script asks too much of any actor playing Matt. Though he is the victim in this love triangle, it's inherently difficult to sympathize for a character who doesn't appear in the first half of the play. An older and more experienced actor might have drawn the audience to him without a lot of setup. But Chris McKinney doesn't yet have the stage presence to pull off such a difficult trick.

The most compelling emotional content is Terry's struggle with his own unhappiness. Early in the play, he speaks of being "a supporting character in my own life." And though Moore wrings every possible drop out of it, the potency of his melancholy is not fully exploited, because the end of the play leaves him in nearly the same state he started.

There is considerable craftsmanship in the production itself. The set is constructed in a warm brick color that is especially cozy in the space at Fielden's. And the production staff has opened more of the ceiling to create more technical opportunities for themselves. The lights, sound and general feeling of the space are all noticeably more theatrical than previous productions.

Though the show squanders much of its energy, the unrelenting humor of the first act (and Steve Moore's garland dance) are worth the price of admission. But given the polish in almost every other aspect of this production, it's unfortunate that the playwright couldn't have finished what he started. S



Richmond Triangle Players' production of "The Crumple Zone" is playing at Fielden's Cabaret Theatre, 2033 W. Broad St., through Dec. 7. Tickets cost $12-$14. Call 346-8113.

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