Oakland offers a trio of ‘Death Defying Acts’


What: “Death Defying Acts”

Where: The Oakland Center for the Arts

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Feb. 4 and 5

Tickets: 330-746-0404

By Milan Paurich


“Death Defying Acts,” a collection of three one-act plays opening this weekend at the Oakland Center for the Arts, truly offers something for everyone. There’s a minimalist David Mamet piece (“The Interview”) that skewers the legal profession; Elaine May’s “Hotline” about telephone counselors at a crisis- prevention center; and a ribald Woody Allen play (“Central Park West”) involving adultery, alcohol and analysis — not necessarily in that order.

Directing two of the one-acts is Tom Smith, one of the busiest actors in local- community theater. In a recent interview, Smith discussed “DDA” and his lifelong attraction to offbeat material.

Q. Most area theatergoers know you primarily as a performer. What are some of your previous directing credits?

A. I directed the last two “Farndale” shows at the Victorian Players, and more recently Thornton Wilder’s “The Long Christmas Dinner” at Columbiana’s Main Street Theater for Centaur Stage’s “In The Spirit of Christmas 2009.”

“Christmas Dinner” was a real pleasure because I got to direct Christopher Fidram, Rosalyn Blystone, Gerri Jenkins-Sullivan, Lisandra Stebner, Brian Lee and Jennifer Milligan. They’re some of my favorite people in theater, and they all turned in outstanding performances. I’ve had some wonderful teachers along the way. Jack Ballantyne was the first director to ever take a chance on me — way back in 1983 in Salem Community Theatre’s production of “The Fantasticks.” I’ve been lucky to work with Jack many times over the years — more than 20 shows, in fact.

Q. How was the decision made which “DDF” director(s) was directing which play? And wasn’t there a third director attached to the project originally?

A. In the beginning, Michael Dempsey was slated to direct one of the shows. But after directing and starring in “Macbeth” at the Youngstown Playhouse, he vanished. I’ve been told that he was kidnapped by Somali pirates and held for ransom. Michael, being the quick thinker that he is, talked his captors into mounting their own version of the Scottish Play in which Michael again played the title role. By the time the show went up, the pirates had made him their actual king. That’s how good this guy is. Well, Michael eventually escaped, but by that time, it was too late for him to direct any of “DDA.” (Laughs.) Luckily, Denise Bayer was able to step in and take over direction of the (David) Mamet piece. In fact, she’s starring in it — with Shaun Lipe — as well. Denise is not only incredibly talented and smart, but beautiful as well: a deadly combination.

Q. Who’s appearing in the show?

A. I have an incredible cast in both one-acts: a great mixture of veterans and rookies. In “Hotline,” I was fortunate enough to get Joyce A. Jenkins-Jones and Molly Makselan to co-star. They’re wonderful together and really bring a great dynamic to their characters. I also was lucky enough to have Meysha Harville and newcomers David Romeo and Katie Seminara. For “Central Park West,” I was able to cast Margie Johnson, who’s done a lot of work at TNT, and Jennifer Milligan, with whom I’ve worked numerous times. They play off each other beautifully. Rounding out the cast are three Oakland first-timers: Jacob Harver (of Lemon Grove fame), Jaye Mills and the stunning Alaina Gilchrist. I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve been having with this bunch. They took to the material right away, and I get more excited with every rehearsal.

Q. The Oakland seems to be developing a reputation these days for dark, off-color comedies (“An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein,” “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” etc.). How do you get the audience into the idiosyncratic rhythms of a “Hotline” or “CPW” if they’re used to tamer fare?

A. The Oakland has been bravely presenting theater that is “cutting edge” for 25 years. There needs to be a venue for this type of material, and the fact that they get butts in the seats proves there’s an audience for it. “Summer Vacation” is a good example. I can’t think of another place in town that would have had the guts to put me on stage in nothing but a raincoat. People were very disturbed by that show, and rightly so. Theater isn’t always about feeling good on the way out. Sometimes the function is to shock, to hold a mirror up to society. It’s a clich , but it’s true. Other than the title, “Death Defying Acts” isn’t particularly dark, though. “Central Park West” reminds me of a ’70s situation comedy with a few naughty words thrown in. I could almost see the cast of “Maude” performing it. Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan would have been a scream as the female leads. “Hotline” strikes me as a piece that Elaine May might have written for one of her telephone sketches with Mike Nichols — updated to present day, of course.

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