Two very different quality productions
highly rated, professional theatres in the area, the New Theatre Restaurant
and the Unicorn Theatre, currently offer two drastically differing
Both present current, non-musical productions: the New Theatre
2 Across with Bonnie Franklin and Bruce Weitz and the Unicorn
The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. If
you want to see how variant two evenings of theatre can be, go to
one of these shows and follow up with the other. A few miles and a
state line separate them, but the intent, subject matter, and aftermath
of 2 Across and The Exonerated are continents apart.
The New Theatre offers comfort. Delicious food precedes the show,
served by an efficient staff. (The New Theatre bartender mixes a great
cosmopolitan.) 2 Across, by playwright Jerry Mayer, tells a
feel-good story about two strangers who encounter each other on the
Bay Area Rapid Transit System (the BART). Both performers
have appeared in our living rooms, Franklin in One Day at a Time
and Weitz in Hill Street Blues. Their television history makes
them feel more like old friends than stars. Desserts appear at intermission,
and then the chance encounter on the train wraps up with a feel-good
While the designers of the New Theatre created a temple to human
comfort, the Unicorns layout focuses the patron on the provocative
onstage action. The floor of the lobby is concrete. The décor
consists mostly of photographs of past productions. The chairs at
the New Theatre move; the Unicorn seats remain immobile, forcing the
viewer to face the production.
The Exonerated peers into the devastating effect of human
evil. Told mostly in monologues, we hear the pathetic stories (all
true) of innocent men and one woman, wrongfully accused of heinous
crimes. Each relays the story of their arrest, how they ended up in
the wrong place at the wrong time. We relive their court trials and
sentencing: all received the death penalty and were later (in some
cases decades) exonerated. They then impart sobering anecdotes about
the conditions of their confinement and finally, the turning over
of their legal guilt and their lives following release.
Jeffrey Cady designed the videography for the Unicorn show, visually
intensifying the dissection of these peoples lives. The Exonerated
includes no intermission. Though deftly directed, passionately acted,
and perfectly written, the piece consciously forces us into a confrontation
with evil. The audience for 2 Across laughs every few minutes.
The Exonerated incites very few, brief and uncomfortable chuckles.
The entire event offered by the New Theatre makes physical comfort
a priority. The Exonerated ultimately offers a different form
of comfort spiritual. Despite the characters dire circumstances,
they find an inner light, one they really work for, perhaps the most
potent kind. The viewer finds hope at the end of a labyrinth from
Mayers script for 2 Across adheres to family-appropriate
guidelines and appeals to the New Theatres conservative audience.
Mayer still managed, in his writing, to touch on heavier and contemporary
themes. Janet (Franklin) steps onto the BART car after seeing her
son off at the airport. He has joined the Marines and she fears for
him because of the current world situation. Josh (Weitz) seeks employment
because his online business failed when the bottom fell out of the
The two connect and debate over the crossword puzzle of the newspaper.
Janet insists Josh finish the puzzle with integrity, that if he can
do that, he can get work. They catch each others facades and
deceptions, then (surprise) they develop a strong attraction.
Both actors demonstrate expertise. Franklin plays Janet with dignity
and desperation. Weitz slouches with the carefree grace of a man who
passed his mid-life crisis with a smirking apathy.
Set designer Scott Heineman with scenic artist Charles Moore put
a slice-of-life train car on the New Theatre stage. The doors slide
open seamlessly, and the car tilts indicating the turning of the train.
These two productions, 2 Across and The Exonerated
differ but excellence in execution they hold in common. The Unicorns
production unpretentiously imparts these tragic and ultimately hopeful
Blank and Jensen wove together the experiences of six people. Director
Cynthia Levin crafted the event smoothly. Four actors serve as an
ensemble to the piece and play various roles around the central characters,
using costume pieces and props. The subtlety of their transitions
is breathtaking; they magically transform. Set designer Spencer Musser
flanked the space with two jury boxes; the actors seated there stay
onstage with few, if any exits. Yet, we fail to notice them changing
attire. David A. Griffith designed the lighting with care, keeping
our attention on the central action.
Though none of the actors in The Exonerated has starred in
a television drama or situation comedy, the cast list includes some
of the most recognizable names in the local professional acting community.
Danny Cox as Delbert serves as a narrator, the glue that holds together
these tales. He speaks in metaphors, like a poetic shaman. David Fritts
as Kerry incites compassion, playing the role with a bewildered innocence.
Damron Russel Armstrong, Merle Moores, Scott Cordes and Darryl Stamp
(the program reads like a Whos Who on the Kansas City stage)
all bring to life the hard knocks suffered by the real people upon
which Blank and Jensen based their play.
Two different theatres in two different states, both with high standards,
have produced shows that astonishingly contrast each other.
2 Across runs through June 19 at the New Theatre Restaurant.
Call 913-649-0103 or visit www.newtheatre.com.
The Exonerated runs through May 22 at the Unicorn Theatre.
Call 816-531-7529 X10 or go to www.theunicorn.com.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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