A Woman of the People

Twelve years ago Lily Tomlin opened her mouth and launched a thousand monologues. The 1986 Broadway success of The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe spawned a generation of self-styled storytellers, from the cutthroat visionary portraits of Eric Bogosian and the neurotic ramblings of Spalding Gray to the gentler memoirs of Lynn Redgrave -- not to mention the varied (and seemingly countless) autobiographies of their lesser brothers and sisters who take to the stage each season, first-person narratives tumbling off their tongues.

If actors warm to the challenge of pulling characters out of thin air, theater producers and club owners like monologists because they're cheap dates: Take one actor, add minimal props, throw in a few costume changes and perhaps a lighting technician, and with any luck you might have -- well, you might have South Beach Stories. Comedienne Susan Murray's one-woman show isn't just low-budget, it's practically no-budget. The title, which promises a glimpse of a singular corner of the South Florida universe, is just a marketing ploy. The show is generic enough to travel to just about any town.

That is, any place you might find a bitter, over-the-hill acting teacher, a former mental patient, a grouch who hates the movie Titanic, and a young girl who finds adults unfathomable, to name a few of the personable but not South Beach-specific denizens Murray brings to life. Only one character -- a former song-and-dance man who tends the desk at a hotel that's seen better days -- seems like a recognizable Miami Beach personality. Performed on the peculiar stage (almost Z-shaped, with a small set of steps set in one of the angles) at one end of the tiny, rundown Terrence L. Ibbs Auditorium in Miami, South Beach Stories may be misnamed, but as an idle entertainment, it's charming.

A slight, elfin woman with shoulder-length brown hair and a cavernous grin, Murray is a onetime Chicago comedienne who is now a guest performer for the benefit of the People With AIDS Coalition's newly formed theater troupe. (Profits from the group's shows, which normally feature the PWAC Players, go to help the organization's clients.) Some of the characters in South Beach Stories are holdovers from Murray's nightclub act. Transported to Miami Beach, each appears alone on a bare-bones set, formerly the location of PWAC's AIDS memorial services.

Here, amid a cafe table, a bench, and a countertop doubling as a bar and a hotel front desk, we meet eight characters in eight separate sketches. Among them is a woman whose passion is collecting doorknobs, a hobby she describes as "nontoxic..., it can't harm anyone." This odd duck keeps her prizes in a cloth bag, occasionally drawing one out to talk about it. "I'm sure there are old doors that still long for their first handles," she says, lapsing into speech almost as evocative as poetry, then going on to lament the day traditional doorknobs will be entirely replaced by high-tech laser cards.

Like most of Murray's characters, this woman is nameless but lovable. She'd be more memorable, though, if Murray didn't let her stray from her engaging ditziness -- in which she imagines herself the Queen of Doorknob Land -- into preachiness: "They are all I have," she explains, as though we hadn't already figured this out, "and I make the most of it. Guard your treasures whatever they should be."

Despite her endearing stage presence, Murray isn't a truly versatile actress or writer. The character who pops up in a sketch about a woman leaving a mental hospital is not all that different from the doorknob collector or the young woman with the vigorous sex life, who follows her on stage. All Murray's people are possessed by a kind of goofy whininess, which is further delineated by the specifics of each story. The portrait that emerges of a woman leaving a mental hospital after a long stay is little more than a circuitous, albeit entertaining, narrative that contains several overlapping threads.

At one point, for example, this mental-patient character contradicts a doctor's too-polite assessment of a fellow patient and provides her own diagnosis. Hearing the doctor tell a fellow inmate that "nothing is wrong with you; you're depressed," the woman responds: "What is wrong with you is that you are nuts." Thus begins one tangent, implying that the sketch may be an implicit criticism of the conventions of mental-health professionals.

But in fact the heart of this sketch is an amusing tale about the woman's involvement with a man suffering from a personality disorder: "Max [a second personality] may have been a delusion to Bobby [the waking personality]," she comments after having sex with him, "but he was certainly real to me."

Murray's comic timing sustains her through this account (it can't exactly be called a story), but she isn't a polished writer or shaper of her own material. I wished her director (Hal Brook, artistic director of PWAC Players) had pushed her, in this case as well as others, to emphasize one thread of the tale over another. He also might have tweaked the sequence of the monologues so their juxtaposition had some effect. As it is they seem randomly thrown together.

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