For Want of a Name

By Dean O'Donnell
Directed by Kimberly Faris
Centastage At the Black Box Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts (617) 536-5981 Closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Centastage premiere of local writer Dean O'Donnell's "For Want of a Name" is exactly the kind of show that makes it exciting to attend the shoestring theatres that make their home in the Boston Center for the Arts. O'Donnell's script is full of puzzles and surprises, fresh twists of character and depths of plot within the mystery genre that dominates film and TV and provides the bulk of America's recreational reading. Cops and Robbers is America's favorite game, and this time around it is played so well that the audience is rooting for it all to work perfectly.

O'Donnell's story line is based on a news item from the Boston Globe, the kind that grabs immediate interest but continues to intrigue by the breadth of its ramifications. The script is filled with local references, supplying the audience with the thrilling sense that their ordinary lives are being transmuted into art right before their eyes. Frightening, funny, and throught-provoking, the plot hurtles along, propelled by whodunnit suspense. Kimberly Faris' direction is clean and sure enough to make all author O'Donnell's intentions clear, even when the production doesn't quite realize all the script's potential.

The opening scene of "Name" shows two department store security people, a tough young man (Sean Vincent Biggins) and a ladylike older woman (Leslie Arnott), holding a suspected "perp" in a dungeon-like back room for interrogation. The forty-ish detainee refuses to admit to shoplifting, in spite of having in his possession a gym bag with a pair of $250.00 gilded candlesticks, a hypodermic syringe, and a fistful of credit cards, some of them blank and no two of them under the same name. The suspect may be an innocent, he may be a hardened professional -- either way, except for those phony credit cards he has no identification on him. And the man refuses to tell the store detectives his name -- although he says, "I'm not saying it's my name, but you can call me "Roger" if you want." This "Roger" really pisses off Hal, the interrogator. "For want of a name", the younger man seems compelled to raise the stakes of his interrogation until something terrible happens, either to his suspect or to himself. From this point the play's scenes flow backwards and forwards: how did these people get to this point, and what's going to happen next?

John Porelle is wonderful as the mystery man. That's not a reviewer's all-purpose rave adjective, but a literal description of what happens: Porelle induces a rare sense of wonder. The actor's presence radiates depth --whether of menace or of masochistic despair remains an open question. When Porelle's character loses consciousness, it's as if there were a huge lighting change on stage -- although what's lost isn't illumination but the power of visible darkness.

Sean Vincent Biggins as Hal is no match for Porelle, although it isn't really the younger man's fault. Biggins is not the "type" equipped to play the character in the script -- an overgrown kid, probably raised by TV, who is in love with guns, and with himself as an action hero in the game of Cops and Robbers. It's clear that Biggins is an intelligent actor who understands the character 's smoldering recklessness, his sudden flip-flops from rule-bound righteousness to manipulative amorality, his basic insecurity masked by bravado. "I know I'm not very bright", Hal admits-- shortly after he has boasted that he is sure to get the information he wants because every human has "a basic need to explain ourself". Biggins never does anything "wrong", and he makes the story zip along by mapping out all Hal's moves so that the audience can follow them eagerly. But the actor is working from his head rather than his gut, and he's miscast. The final scenes of the play just doesn't have the impact they would if Hal were played by a "method" actor, cast to type.

The second act loses a little momentum because of the number of short two-person scenes, with blackouts between them. Why not do what theatre does much better than movies or television, and stage these scenes simultaneously rather than sequentially? Keep the audience on their toes and flatter their ability to follow two stories at once. After all, delight in one's powers of observation and deduction is one of the chief pleasures of the crime-detection genre-- just as delight in seeing new work and undiscovered talent take shape is one of the chief pleasures of live theatre-going.

Fran, the middle-class housewife who has recently been promoted by Store Security from putting the little pieces of orange tape onto shopper's bags to shoplifting surveillance, is the one character of O'Donnell's who may need a bit of reshaping. Fran is the most ordinary person in the play, yet a couple of her actions seem to come out of nowhere. When Leslie Arnott has a scene to act where Fran's progression is clear, such as the one in which Hal suggests that as a cover for their detective work on the floor Fran should take on the persona of a rich woman buying presents for Hal's persona, the woman's young lover, Arnott unleashes a rich and complex play of emotion, and a wry sense of humor. When Arnott is stuck with trying to convey ambiguous possibility-- for the sake of the plot-- she furrows up her brow. O'Donnell might consider smoothing away some of the actress' wrinkles.

Mary Karney as the mystery man's thrill-seeking girlfriend Marta has less to do than the others in the cast, but she does it very well.

Rick Park is listed in the script as playing "Everyman", but that's not quite true. Park plays three men: an out-of-towner torn between altruism and greed, a manager at the department store, and a policeman. He comes up with three perfect cameos. His interrogator in the final scene is a particular gem. Familiar as the fatherly policeman figure is from a thousand cop shows, Park manages to give him both individuality and archetypal weight.

In fact, O'Donnell's ability to infuse new life into old forms is rather ominous, in terms of future as a playwright. All too soon, he may be tempted away to write for television and film. As John Dillinger famously said........