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Ramblin' Women

What a difference a week makes. In the last issue of New Times, Florida Stage in Manalapan was lauded as the Best Theater in South Florida. Now along comes its final show of the season, Women Who Steal, which is, to be blunt, the worst show of the stage's season. What happened? Weak play, so-so direction, uneven acting, uninspired design. This company certainly deserves credit for outstanding overall quality but maybe not for consistency.

The play's movie-like concept is promising enough: A stout, fiftyish housewife, Peggy (Peggy Cosgrove), learns that her husband has cheated on her and confronts the hubby's squeeze, Karen (Annie Fitzpatrick), a slinky, fortyish, single professional woman. The two women meet, bond, drink, then light out for a night of wacky mayhem and ultimate self-discovery. En route, they encounter the men in their lives: Peggy's long-ago first love, Karen's hapless office lover, and Peggy's nemesis, her wayward hubby, who ends up on the wrong end of a gun. So far, so good. But there's many a slip between idea and execution, and that's where Carter W. Lewis's play and Louis Tyrrell's production go seriously astray.

For starters, Lewis's script seems particularly slapdash. The narrative is essentially a road picture, a fizzy take on Thelma & Louise, with several scenes in moving cars or lowlife bars. The one-night-on-the-road concept is solid, but Lewis relies too little on character-driven drama and overmuch on intellectual pyrotechnics and cutesy one-liners, as when Peggy shoots a cow merely to get in the crack, "I'm lactose-intolerant." Much of the dialogue consists of long, dense monologues that might amuse the writer but seem decidedly obtuse. This might work for brainy Karen, who seems to share the playwright's penchant for tortured phraseology, but when simple redneck Peggy uses similar language, the play becomes less about characters and all about the playwright.

The acting is exceptionally uneven. Lewis reportedly wrote the role of Peggy for Cosgrove, and it does fit her well. But there's next to no chemistry between Cosgrove and her costar Fitzpatrick, despite the fact that the pair just played the same roles in Cincinnati. Fitzpatrick makes the mistake of playing the self-absorbed, disconnected Karen in a self-absorbed, disconnected way. It's a mannered, self-conscious performance that seems intent on ferreting out laughs, a single-minded search that, of course, yields very few.

This weakness is in clear contrast to Cosgrove's scenes with Robert Elliot, who plays the multiple men in these gals' lives. Suddenly, the stage lights up when Peggy reencounters her old beau Herb, a cowboy-booted good ol' boy who has maintained a deep, courtly love for her lo these many years. Cosgrove and Elliot really get going in the play's one real scene, the final one, when Peggy has it out with her remorseful husband, Jack. It's a painful, funny showdown that belatedly shows off what Lewis can do with a scene once he stops trying to write cute and gets down to just writing. Elliot is fine in all of his cameos, but it's an immediate heads-up that something's wrong when his first walk-on, as a harried waiter, has more nuance and dimension than Karen's character, despite her narrative importance and long speechifying.

As with the company's season-opener, Thief River, director Tyrrell hasn't figured out a way to bring some cohesion to his cast -- individual actors either click or they don't. He also doesn't offer much theatrical vision for this production, and he isn't helped by Klara Zieglerova's pedestrian set design, some Astroturf edged by tall, translucent panels. The three-person cast handles the many scene shifts themselves, using chairs and benches to stand for cars, trucks, and the like. Tyrrell makes a point of these changes -- the actors start both acts moving the furniture -- but it's all rather uninspired. There's also a lot of poorly executed mime going on: In one scene, the two women are riding in Peggy's Mercedes, but the chairs are so close it looks like they're in a Mini Cooper. In another scene, Karen walks around the front of an imaginary car, then immediately stands in the middle of what would be the engine compartment.

The net result of Women Who Steal is mostly disappointment. Florida Stage has pulled off some spectacular work lately. But this success breeds expectations, not necessarily of more success but at least of heightened ambition. Florida Stage can't be expected to hit a home run every time. But it should be taking better swings than this.

Disappointment may rule in Manalapan, but children's-theater fans have gotta crow over Peter Pan, a season-ending triumph for the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre. The all-children company presented the Broadway musical version of James Barrie's classic for a three-day run at the Parker Playhouse over Mother's Day weekend. The elaborate show featured eight full stage sets, with scrims, flying drops, and professionally designed wire flying effects, courtesy of a Las Vegas stunt company. Peter's first entrance, swooping into the nursery in a shower of fairy dust, was spectacular. The child cast, 63 strong, was excellent, under artistic director Janet Erlick's efficient and sometimes-inspired staging, which added some wry, topical in-jokes and managed to gently underscore some of the more adult themes in the classic tale.

Ryan Carr, 16 years old, handled the title role with skill and great gymnastic ability. Brittany Berkowitz, also 16, as Wendy showed serious professional promise with her strong vocal skills. Even the tiniest performers comported themselves with aplomb, especially two pint-size seven-year-olds: Dara Homer as a funny, take-charge pirate, Mini-Smee, and Rebecca Roberts as Tinkerbell, who pulled down some laughs of her own and bravely flew 15 feet above the stage. The all-kids concept extended to the backstage crew, which was mostly children (supervised by adults for safety), and the entire shebang was stage-managed by Lauren O'Connor, all of 13 years old. Peter Pan was everything theater can and should be: thrilling, charming, memorable.

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Ronald Mangravite

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