Mentors drop the ball with teen playwrights

Published May 11, 2007

TAMPA - The idea behind the Gorilla Theatre's annual Young Dramatists' Project is laudable: High school playwrights submit work, and professional directors and actors bring the best to the stage.

This year's crop of five is far from the best in the series' six years, but each work has promise. Some of the playwrights show a command of naturalistic dialogue. Some of the plays have admirably concise, effective dramatic structures. Most encouragingly, most of the writers seem to have a clear idea of what they want to say and how they want to say it. Even the one piece that doesn't work fails mostly because it's too ambitious, and that's hardly the worst fault for a new writer.

So the teen playwrights have done what they're supposed to do. It's the grownups who haven't held up their part of the bargain.

For the most part, the acting is horrendous and the direction lackadaisical. There are exceptions. Ed Walker Jr. is quite good in three roles, and C. David Frankel's direction of a piece called Descension is inventive and effective. But largely it feels as though the experienced theater people didn't take seriously their responsibility. Some of the best performances come from student actors, including Delia Huffman, Amanda Buck and Chris Jackson.

Descension, by Andrew Ford, and Strand in The Closet, by Gabriel Neustadt, are the most successful pieces. They're economical and deliver rewarding little surprises at the end. Both playwrights, especially Neustadt, show a good ear for dialogue.

Victoria Tuzzolino's Happily Ever After has a compelling concept - a young man can literally see, touch and converse with his dead girlfriend - but doesn't do anything with it. Petar Yanev's There It Is, The Sea is a simple character study, but the character as he's portrayed is manic and creepy. From introductory comments by Yanev, it seems unlikely that was his intent.

Erin Lightning's One Voice features a nice vignette or two. But it tries to cram in too much: eight characters, several unrelated story lines and an unnecessary stab at '60s-style experimentalism.

Each play opens with a videotaped segment in which the playwright talks about the work. Almost all say they didn't do rewrites; most should have. They have sown promising seeds, but they still need guidance to make them grow.