At YSU, Blackbox Productions breaks out two quality one-acts

‘Roulette’ and ‘The Nature and Purpose of the Universe’ make up a twin bill.



YOUNGSTOWN — As usual, Blackbox Productions has selected some seldom-seen and thought-provoking fare.

The student-run theater troupe at Youngstown State University is offering two one-act plays in its current production, which opened Thursday.

I think of Blackbox as the indie-rockers of area theater. The opening play, “Roulette,” only confirmed that impression. The little drama, written by Douglas Hill and directed by Joel Stigliano, is a hip and likable study in male-female argument dynamics.

It also has a cool indie-rock soundtrack (only at Blackbox will you hear The Hold Steady adding audio color).

Janine (Alyssa Connelly) and Matt (Nick Libeg) are having a split-up argument, as they deep-six their four-year marriage

Janine is exasperated at her husband’s indifference and disinterest. But she doesn’t really want a divorce — just some attention. But Matt has already moved on, at least mentally.

Connelly has to carry the show as the always-agitated Janine, and she does. She has most of the lines in the two-person show, and delivers them all an octave higher than normal. It’s what anyone would do when they know their words aren’t getting through.

Libeg gives Matt a slacker calmness in the face of this meltdown, and it is key in portraying this classic gender-rooted disconnect. The more animated she gets, the more withdrawn he gets — which makes her even more angry.

Matt packs his bags for Las Vegas. But since he doesn’t have a way to get there, Janine agrees to drive him as one last favor.

Because Blackbox shows usually rest on dialog, the props are barely there. “Roulette” is no different. But the driving scenes are inventive, with Matt and Janine plopped on seats with wheels.

It’s during this desert road trip that they regain some lost ground, relationshipwise, with the help of some offbeat divine intervention.

“Roulette” is a satisfying journey, but it’s in dry contrast to the nightcap, “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe.”

This lively and loony absurdist comedy was written by Christopher Durang, who has a reputation for skewering Catholicism. David Munnell directs.

Nobody in “Nature” is painted in a favorable light, as the playwright takes wild swipes at the Catholic hierarchy. There is a crazed, power-hungry nun and a sadistic school teacher. The pope is portrayed as a transvestite prostitute.

The manic plot centers on a family that gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the pope.

Durang’s main target seems to be to the church’s predilection for pointless suffering. It will certainly spark some discussion, at least until you get to your car.

“Nature” was written in the early ’70s, and its age shows. The playwright’s ridicule of the Catholic church for its dogma, its rituals and its hypocrites, seems outdated. It’s rooted in righteous schoolboy anger from an era that few today can say they lived through. And there isn’t a pedophilic priest in sight.

But it’s a tribute to the cast that these talking points come through so clearly amidst all the over-the-top action.

Roxanne Hauldren is right on character as Eleanor Mann, the meek wife and mother who is horribly mistreated by her husband, sons and everyone else. With a saintly demeanor, Hauldren’s Eleanor accepts the abuse and awaits salvation.

BJ Wilkes is a hoot as Steve, her white-shirt-with-short-sleeves fanatic layman of a husband. Steve is in cahoots with the radical Sister Annie De Maupassant (Juleah Buttermore).

Bobby Brooks is hilarious as their angry and very swishy son, Gary; Ryan Bissett has a face full of rage as Donald, the drug dealer/pimp son. Randall Brammer is the unfortunate son Andy.

Snowflake St. Clair is downright decadent — and off-the-chain funny — as the pope/Gary’s transvestite lover. She is a sight to behold.

X Two One-Act plays (each an hour long) can be seen at 8 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday at Spotlight Arena Theater, in YSU’s Bliss Hall, on Wick Avenue. Call (330) 941-3105 for tickets. The plays are recommended for adults only.

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