Two very different quality productions
By David Ollington

Two different, highly rated, professional theatres in the area, the New Theatre Restaurant and the Unicorn Theatre, currently offer two drastically differing experiences.

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.

(l to r) Merle Moores (as Sunny Jacobs), Damron Armstrong (as Robert Earl Hayes) and David Fritts (as Kerry Max Cook) in the Unicorn Theatre production of The Exonerated by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, thru May 22. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

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 turn.

While the designers of the New Theatre created a temple to human comfort, the Unicorn’s 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 people’s 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 hell.

(l to r) Bruce Weitz and Bonnie Franklin in 2 Across at The New Theatre Restaurant thru June 19 (photo courtesy of The New Theatre)

Mayer’s script for 2 Across adheres to family-appropriate guidelines and appeals to the New Theatre’s 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 dot-com industry.

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 other’s 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 Unicorn’s production unpretentiously imparts these tragic and ultimately hopeful stories.

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 Who’s 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 The Exonerated runs through May 22 at the Unicorn Theatre. Call 816-531-7529 X10 or go to

David Ollington can be contacted at



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