PRESTON BUYS A snow globe. That's the beginning of everything. Preston buys a snow globe, and it breaks in his suitcase, and he writes a letter to Dahlia, the store's assistant manager, demanding compensation for his dry cleaning bill. Dahlia, also an aspiring photographer, refuses his offer in not-so-gentle words. Preston sends another letter to her. And then another and then another, at which point Hate Mail, an epistolary comedy in the beloved A.R. Gurney mode, has begun its trajectory from hate to hate to hate all over again.
Coauthored in a series of faxes--with Bill Corbett writing Preston's letters and Kira Obolensky, Dahlia's--this project, premiered here by the the Eye of the Storm, seems the playwright's equivalent of playing the dozens. By the audience's response, Corbett is the hands-down winner: It is Preston who seems to escalate this romantic showdown. She shows a dozen nude self-portraits in a New York gallery. He buys the lot and returns a baker's dozen of his own. She joins an environmental group in Vermont. He joins a cult in Montana. She shampoos rugs. He empties bedpans. Fortunately, in writing these hyperbolic situations, both Corbett and Obolensky display a welcome ability to differentiate between funny and wacky, the one being desirable, the other, un-.
Actors Kevin Kling and Mo Collins do not match up quite so well as the paired playwrights; these two sparring partners are in different weight classes. Collins, here with a post-Aniston coif and the modern mood to match, lacks the range to make Dahlia dynamic and the intensity to get away with it. And, in a curious deficiency for a former comic, she seems to lack both timing and confidence. Dahlia is, on the other hand, a nearly credible character. Which is something that Kling's Preston is not. Kling's singular storytelling intonation is in full throat; he speaks, as always, with the swollen cadences of some bizarre Lutheran cantor. This is less acting than acting out. Kling could drag an audience's attention away from a nude musical revue, and in this mismatched tug-of-war, he cakewalks away with the show. (The laconic Michael Nelson from MST 3K will fill the role in the second half of the play's run.)
One source for Hate Mail's acting deficit might be the paucity of scenes where the players actually react to each other's missives; these moments, when they do come, are all vaguely awkward, as if someone had introduced live action into a slide show. Collins holds her face in an inflexible parody of a reaction shot. Kling mugs as if he's trying to hasten the return to his own letters. This stilted interaction recalls Martin Amis's critique of Nicholson Baker's Vox, a smutty novel comprised entirely of dialogue over a 1-900 phone line. "Its slightness is inbuilt," Amis wrote, "it has no room to maneuver; it has no prose." So too, Hate Mail has little of the stuff of traditional drama: dialogue, action, interaction.
With her spare direction doing its best to capitalize on unique limitations, Casey Stangl seems to recognize the script for the playwright's showcase it is. Rather than introduce stray pacing, the couple stay seated throughout; their only movement is a gradual progression downstage, as their intimacy grows. And the actors actually seem to be reading the letters off paper, instead of engaging in the eyeball ping-pong of a pulpit speaker. Ultimately, Stangl & Co. are only a dozen minutes long and a dozen belly laughs short of having a franchise-able hit on their hands... although the last time I thought I heard the distant jingling of cash registers was with the Guthrie's Babes in Arms. That show went on to lose a million dollars. Oops.
Where Hate Mail is, at heart, not very hateful, the latest series of musical parodies and comic sketches from the bitchy boys at Hot Dish, The Hung and the Tasteless, lives up to its name. Or the tasteless part, at least. Some of these breaches of decorum are silly ("I'm a laptop dancer/Feel my mouse"); some regional (Gay Nineties jokes); some naughty (defrocking a pope hand puppet); and some unappetizing (exploring onanism from the hand's point-of-view). There are also wheelchair jokes and coma jokes and sweatshop jokes and, most of all, dyke jokes. "The only danger in being inclusive," one character says, "is that they may think we actually want them here." This is such an inside affair that the troupe mostly leaves heterosexuals alone; Stephen Sondheim medleys are like bug repellent for straights anyway. But what most separates Hot Dish from typical local comedy--other than a mean streak that would do Bob Dole proud--is the fact that they're often funny.
Hate Mail plays late night at the Loring Playhouse through July 13; 332-1619.The Hung and the Tasteless plays at the Bryant-Lake Bowl through June 30; 825-8949.