The founders of Prime Productions made the accurate, and important, observation that the Twin Cities have a wealth of talented female actors over the age of 50, yet few plum roles for them to play. Unfortunately, the company doesn’t add a single great role with its debut production, the regional premiere of Steven Carl McCasland’s stiff and self-congratulatory Little Wars.
Mixed Blood Theatre
McCasland imagines a fictional meeting among several of the 20th century’s most remarkable women, given a disappointingly static staging by director Shelli Place at Mixed Blood Theatre. One night in the summer of 1940, Little Wars has it, the trio of Lillian Hellman (Vanessa Gamble), Dorothy Parker (Elizabeth Desotelle), and Agatha Christie (Alison Edwards) swung by the home Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett Birk) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) shared in the French Alps. Oh, and Muriel Gardiner (Laura B. Adams) was there, too.
The presence of Gardiner, a psychiatrist who helped hundreds of potential Nazi victims escape from Austria, turns out to be key to the play’s plot, as does the presence of Bernadette (Miriam Schwartz), a young woman who serves as a maid for Toklas and Stein. Though the play starts with boozy repartee, things sober up with implausible speed as France surrenders to Hitler and the stakes become clear.
Little Wars is one of those plays where the characters are constantly calling for cocktails, both to create stage business and to justify the all-too-honest revelations that begin to spurt out at regular intervals. The women take turns delivering monologues, everyone onstage freezing in place and listening with rapt attentiveness so as not to distract from the character development.
The actors are all solid, though some bring more zest to the proceedings than others. Birk finds Stein’s warm heart (and a nice romantic chemistry with Scott), striking like a cobra but withholding any real venom. As Birk’s principal antagonist, Gamble holds her stage cigarette like she’s ready to shoot someone with it. As for Desotelle, she basically spends the whole play sitting on the couch getting potted. She at least has more to work with than Adams, saintlike and bland; or Edwards, who’s forced to constantly interrogate everyone. Stein jokingly likens her to Poirot, but this Christie is closer to Clouseau.
Schwartz, an enormously talented young actor, gets the thankless role of a refugee with a tragic past. The exact nature of this past is teased for most of the play, and when we finally learn exactly what happened, it’s a brutal shock. Schwartz’s character, and her committed performance, give the revelation scene an intensity that feels incongruous rather than climactic. Subsequent plot developments, including some poorly-justified resistance from Hellman, feel rushed.
The idea of a mid-century intellectual version of The View sounds fun in theory, but McCasland’s play only occasionally captures the kind of sparks that might actually have flown if all of these women had ever been in a room together. Here’s hoping that Prime Productions’ next show doesn’t involve such a subprime script.
IF YOU GO:
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 Fourth St. S., Minneapolis
612-338-6131; through May 21