There are just a few performances left of the Overtime’s premiere of Jeffrey Strausser’s The Decorator, an intermittently engaging dark comedy that nevertheless leaves its considerable promise unfulfilled. The set-up is a dandy one: an interior decorator (played with brio by Renee Garvens) promises two unhappy housewives that she’ll not only improve their house—knocking out, say, a wall—but improve their household (knocking off, say, a husband). The play thus satirizes the peculiarly American fascination with both television home-improvement shows (like Trading Spaces) and television life-improvement shows (like Wife Swap). After all, why not rid yourself of the couch and its potato at the same time? We Americans are an efficient lot.
The problem is one of tone and polish. Some scenes glance at outright farce—a corpse in a rug seems to whisk us away to the frantic, blasphemous world of Orton’s Loot—while gab sessions among the wives steer far closer to Southern Gothic dramas like Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. But the characterizations aren’t rich enough to support that sort of melodrama, and so the play emerges as neither fish nor fowl: neither zippy nor witty enough to succeed as a door-slamming comedy, but not exactly a serious drama, either. The production works best when screening its two (hilarious) infomercials for the macabre services of its titular decorator: the sinister, arch tone is just right. (A tip of the hat to video producer Bryan Ortiz.)
The Overtime is clearly making strides in terms of production. Christie Beckham and Morgan Scharff turn in good work as Houston’s most desperate housewives, and Rigel Nuñez’s clean, unfussy set gives plenty of room for the actors to spread out. (It’s thus baffling that director Matthew Byron Cassi stages the first scene—a static and talky confessional—in a corner, with hideous sightlines. Come to think of it, it’s the same nook used for the equally problematic kitchen scenes in All Good Things this past spring. My kingdom for a revolving set.) Scene changes generally go on too long, though covered by some eclectic music. Robert Jerdee makes do with the under-written part of the loutish Todd, but too often relies on sit-com-ish technique.
The Overtime’s insanely ambitious mission is to present about ten premieres a year, and The Decorator seems to me a perfectly respectable offering from the company, considering its resources. But while I’m bloviating on my blog, let me add that the Overtime has clearly mastered the art of publicity, with the best graphic design and website of any theater in San Antonio. Cassi’s cover design for The Decorator—of blood tastefully decanted into a water glass—is evocative, creepy, beautifully photographed, and smart, and the website is fun, colorful, and informative. While many theaters in San Antonio publicize their events with production photos (of varying, and occasionally horrific, quality), the Overtime really thinks through the possibilities of graphic design: the M. C. Escher-inspired poster for Frames was likewise eye-catching. (A postscript: Not all is perfect in the world of Overtime advertising, however. The website blurb for The Decorator actually gives a way a final plot twist: a bad idea.)
Next up at the Overtime is Michael Burger’s intriguingly titled Life, or a Reasonable Approximation Thereof, premiering right after our July 4th barbeques (or reasonable approximations thereof). I’ll be covering that show, as well as the Classic Theater’s newly announced Buried Child, so stay tuned.
--Thomas "Feng Shui" Jenkins, Current theater critic.
Edit: I had a comment about the Vexler's theater website's not working, but it appears to be up and running at www.vexler.org.
Re-edit: Hmmm. Now I can't get www.vexler.org to work any more; from the code, it looks like it should be redirecting to http://pages.sbcglobal.net/krskjs/.