BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Art meets economics in the opening play of the 2008-09 season at American Stage, By the Waters of Babylon by Robert Schenkkan. Set in Austin, Texas, it's about the relationship between the widow of a college professor and her gardener, an exiled Cuban writer.
These days, you're much more likely to see Schenkkan's two-character play than the work for which he won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama, The Kentucky Cycle, a sprawling nine-part epic that calls for 20 actors and is rarely produced because of the high cost of paying them all.
Obviously economics influence a theater's play choices, especially now in a tough economy. "People are the most expensive part of our budget,'' said Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage. "It's about $4,000 per actor for a four-week run here.''
American Stage is in the middle of a stretch of thrifty two-actor plays. Over the summer, the company produced Souvenir, about a deluded soprano and her pianist, and its next play, opening in November, is A Tuna Christmas, in which two actors play most of the residents of a small town in Texas. The largest cast of the season will be for August Wilson's King Hedley II, which has six characters.
Two other theaters in the Tampa Bay area are also staging two-handers: Gorilla Theater with An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch and Jobsite Theater with Blackbird by David Harrower.
Is it just a matter of money, or are there good artistic reasons for a playwright to limit the number of characters to two?
"A lot of two-character plays enable a playwright to really focus on the psychological and emotional connections between two people,'' said C. David Frankel, assistant director of the theater program at the University of South Florida at Tampa. "You can create an intimacy for the audience by focusing on two characters that you don't always get in a larger work.''
Frankel, who is appearing as the unrehearsed guest actor in An Oak Tree tonight, says the tradition of two-character plays goes back at least to Anton Chekhov, whose Swan Song served as inspiration for one of David Mamet's two-character plays, A Life in the Theatre. Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances is another two-character play with a theatrical theme.
Some of Frankel's favorites in the genre include Talley's Folly by Lanford Wilson, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days and Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. His top choice is Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, in which one of the characters is silent throughout the play.
"Hughie comes closest to being a great play because of the way it gets inside this person who is talking,'' he said. "Talley's Folly is a good play. Topdog/Underdog is good. But I think they unavoidably narrow the span of what you can do in a drama. It's harder to address big themes with only two characters.''
Olson and Drew Fracher, who is directing By the Waters of Babylon, got together last week to draw up a list of their favorite two-character plays. It included such popular works as Oleanna by Mamet, Night Mother by Marsha Norman and The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn, as well as rarities such as The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion by Israel Horovitz and Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted by Christopher Trumbo.
"I'd say there are many more bad two-person plays than good because it's so tricky to pull off,'' Olson said.
Actors tend to like two-character plays, which virtually guarantee meaty roles. By the Waters of Babylon, premiered in 2005 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, provides a showcase for Julie Rowe and Chaz Mena.
"It's all on the backs of only two people out there onstage,'' Fracher said. "There are no frills, just two people relating to each other in space. You have to make that compelling enough for an audience to want to sit through it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.