A Bone To Pick With My Fellow Critics

Sometimes I wonder whether a theater critic’s deep desire to find and champion great new dramas by hot emerging local dramatists leads him or her to overhype plays that don’t deserve tumultuous praise.

This issue has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few days in light of a recent theater experience. On Thursday evening, I went to see Bone To Pick, a world premiere by San Francisco playwright Eugenie Chan. The play is currently being produced as part of a three-play soiree of experimental works by The Cutting Ball at the Exit Theatre, where the company is currently resident.

A modern retelling of the Ariadne myth, the drama pictures the Ancient Greek heroine as a homespun diner waitress left to eke out a lonely eternity in a desolate, war-torn nowhere-land by her callous soldier-lover Theo (aka Theseus.) The play has been superlatively reviewed in a number of local publications. It seems to have stood out as the clear favorite of all three items on the program (the other two being Gertrude Stein’s bizarro 1922 three-hander about the affects of conflicts on families, Accents in Alsace, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1987 family conflict comedy for two actors, Betting on the Dust Commander.) My colleague at SF Weekly, Molly Rhodes, wrote: “Bone grabs you and doesn’t let go” in her review of the production for the paper last week. “Bone is richly rewarding right down to its marrow,” wrote Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian called the play, “a fresh and shrewd refiguring of the Ariadne myth.”

On the strength of these reviews and my interest in seeing powerful world premieres as a member of the judging panel for the the Bay Area’s annual Glickman Award, I went to see the show.

Somehow, I just can’t see what my colleagues are getting so worked up about. I admit to being completely bewitched by Paige Rogers’ tour de force performance as Ria. Rogers inhabits her character so completely that we don’t know whether to feel more sorry for the dilapidated waitress with her self-deprecating attitude and caustic air of resignation or the state of the battered world at large. And Rogers manages to be incredibly funny too. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image I have of the actress, standing there in her soiled Dairy Queen-esque outfit taking occasional swigs of rusty water from an old coffee pot.

But as for the play itself? Well, I didn’t find it that grabbing to be honest, though there are some lyrical and witty moments. The language is a little too self-conscious and seemed derivative of such writers as Deb Margolin and The Beats. The scenes in which Ria re-imagines leading Theo into the Minotaur’s labyrinth are long-winded and histrionic. I personally failed to get any new insights into the nature of war or America’s increasingly tenuous position on the world stage. I wonder if the excited critical responses have more to do with the strength of Rogers’ acting, the fact that the play compares favorably with the other two productions in the evening’s lineup and Chan’s status as a local up-and-comer, than the pure merit of the script itself?

What can I say except that it’s been a slow year for great new plays in the Bay Area. I think I’ve seen only two in eight months that I would consider worthy of the Glickman Award and both of those were musicals.

Then again, I could always be wrong — I am in a mino(tau)rity after all.

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