|Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O in The Zero Hour: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater|
Madeleine George, a playwright new to me, has had several plays produced or developed at venues such as Pittsburgh City Theatre and the Berkeley Rep, one of my very favorite American theaters.
During the 2010-2011 City Theatre season, I missed a production of George’s "Precious Little," and, so, went in cold to an opening night performance of the playwright’s "The Zero Hour," now getting a staging at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. I left only lukewarm.
Admittedly, I was impressed by George’s flashes of brilliant dialogue, but unfortunately they were counterbalanced by nearly the same number of mediocre moments.
In "The Zero Hour," there’s a lot going on, what with one character, Rebecca, coming to terms with her homosexual inclinations while, at the same time, trying to get at the truth in a children’s educational book she’s writing about the Nazis and the Holocaust. Her sexual playmate, simply called O, is Out with a capital O, a feisty feminine unemployed Lesbian with mother issues.
The play opens with the two young ladies together in bed, then proceeds through a series of rather brief scenes in which both actors play multiple roles that include their mothers, a therapist, and several Germans from the Hitler Youth Movement that Rebecca fantasizes about meeting on the Number 7 subway in New York City.
The play runs about 90 minutes uninterrupted by an intermission, and the two actress assume their multiple roles by donning clothing that helps shape their personae. While Rebecca struggles with issues of her own identity, she also explores how 85 percent of the German population got caught up in the Nazi movement just prior to and during the Second World War.
Genocide, she recalls, was not limited to 1930s and 40s Germany as she goes on to list other instances of ethnic and racial cleansing, including the American treatment of its Native peoples.
To paraphrase one telling line, Rebecca underscores the play’s title when she wonders how many innocent German girls were captivated in an instantaneous epiphany by the cold look in a Nazi soldier’s eyes that formed empty dark zeros.
Rebecca, who has remained in the closet to her mother and her fellow workers and even denies she’s gay in encounters with her therapist, has her own flash of personal insight, her own zero hour. Lying to herself, or at least suppressing the realization of her sexual identity, she finally comes to terms with herself when she visits a bar and meets up with a dandy intent on hitting on her.
As she plays mind games with her boy toy, she finally admits to him (and herself) that she’d never sleep with him because she’s gay.
Two noteworthy actresses, Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O, make lovely dramatic music together Griffith is the brasher of the two, full of sexual energy and tension, while Cuenca is more settled and composed. Griffith excels in her multiple roles, getting things right, right down to the accents she’s required to pull off. She also has an ear for comedy, timing her lines just right and hitting the mark on appropriate gestures that are downright chuckle inducing.
Cuenca is rightly cast in the weightier role and vividly communicates her character’s sexual ambivalence, her introspective musings, her moody humanness and her cerebral insights. Both actresses have good erotic chemistry, a command of the dialogue and the energy to pull off their demanding roles.
John Steffenauer as Doug, Rebecca’s bar encounter, is also a strong presence in a diminutive role, and sound designer, Ryan McMasters, does a great job incorporating Hitler speeches in the sound tract that evokes the mood of Nazi Germany along with snippets of beautiful singing from Mozart’s opera, "The Magic Flute," as well as some captivating music in the bar scene I’d like to get my own hands on.
How do you create a set that is appropriate for both the ladies’ shoddy Queens apartment, the phantasmagoric Teutonic scenes on the subway and the therapist’s office? Rich Preffer does just that in an inventive convincing way.
While George’s dark comedy is an incongruous mix of coming-to-terms sexuality, Fascist history and mother-daughter and girl-to-girl relationships gone awry, it succeeds somehow on a dramatic level. Give the playwright credit for even conceiving of such an improbable mishmash of themes. In the long run, however, I don’t think the play has much staying power and will probably fade into the shadows in the not-too-distant future. If you want a bit of theater you won’t find many other places, see it now for the clock is ticking away.
"The Zero Hour" is at the Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie through November 9. Phone 724-873-3576 or visit website www.insideoffthewall.com.
A scene from "The Zero Hour; left to Right: Daina Michelle Griffith and Erika Cuenca: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater