At this point, a critic almost isn’t needed for both hands theatre company’s brooms: a play about saying yes. The work virtually judges itself. The all but fully staged readings Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane’s polyphonic matrimony play enjoyed in the summer of 2004 wowed capacity crowds and those critics who showed up. At the same time, those events set an extremely high standard for subsequent productions.

The current version now onstage at Manbites Dog Theater doesn’t match up. I wish it did. As things stand, it’s difficult to assess many of the refinements its co-creators have made to the now completed work.

brooms tells the story of four women of a certain age–say, mid-20s to early 30s–who have grown so frustrated with romance that their solution hinges on a dubious telemarketing ad: a magical broom which, when used correctly, will guarantee their soulmates’ appearance at the front door.

As might be expected, the enterprise costs a bit more than $99.95 (shipping and handling not included). Unrealistic dreams and secret expectations have to be examined and ultimately modified or given up when the sweepers reveal their hidden functions, first through lie detection, then psychoanalysis by proxy.

Through a mix of group and individual questions and answers–and witty, knowing and insightful dialogue–each woman gradually becomes clearer about what she wants and can expect from a marriage.

Those who didn’t see the work’s first incarnation will likely find its present form an entertaining night of theater. Those who did, though, will know that something big is missing.

The genius in the work we saw in 2004 was that it took conventional theater well beyond what Dylan Thomas once called “a play for voices.” At its best, the earlier brooms wasn’t just a theater piece. It was a musical composition as well, though admittedly one without a single note sung on stage.

From beginning to end, in at least four separate sections, Chamblee and Kissane probed the complex rhythms already present in human speech by having a quartet of actors precisely say their different lines on top of or around one another. The result was a complex but intelligible rhythmic braid, a counterpoint of spoken word that immediately drew parallels with early works by composer Steve Reich and Gertrude Stein.

Present audiences can hear the first example of this effect in the amusing opening sequence, “Happy happy days.” But the rhythmic interplay in the other three parts are muddied–if not erased entirely–by the frequently ad hoc line deliveries of the current cast.

Originally, the limping waltz of the late “Stammering” sequence put the feelings of women contemplating the blighting of a marriage into a form recalling early Leonard Bernstein. Here, it’s simply cryptic, halted dialogue.

Rhythmic musicality still shines through in other places. Still, we’re left with one of two uncomfortable conclusions: Either Chamblee and Kissane have unwisely chosen to downplay some of their best work, or the present cast, despite some signal strengths, simply isn’t up to the job of performing it.

In all honesty, the chemistry and the theatrical–and musical–accomplishment of the original cast would have been hard to match, let alone top.

Jackie Marriott’s differing take on the character of Dahlia conveys the same incandescence Beth Popelka did the first time out, and we appreciated actor Leigh Holmes’ exasperation, and later elation, as Iris. Since the actors originating the roles of Poppy and Violet were Kissane and Chamblee themselves, it almost seems unfair to debit the work of Dana Marks and Jane Allen Wilson in this production. But I can’t help feeling that Kissane’s character was a lot deeper, more coherent and believably darker than Marks’ is in the current show. Though Wilson’s Violet is lively, loopy and very much her own character, a part of me feels that Chamblee knows her a lot better. Concerning chemistry, we sensed those four were longtime friends. Here, we have our doubts.

I realize this is a largely negative review of a work that, in all likelihood, remains one of the better shows of the season.

But brooms was once significantly stronger than the work we see presented here. As a critic, I would be breaking faith with the promise of the original work and those who created it if I didn’t say the original version was much better.

brooms: a play about saying yes
* * * 1/2
both hands theatre company
Manbites Dog Theater

What should the minimum signal-to-noise ratio be at a festival of new plays? Exactly how many masterpieces does one have to see to make a night worthwhile in the first place?

These questions have always left me wondering exactly how to evaluate the ArtsCenter’s 10 by 10 Festival, their annual (and now international) gathering of 10 new 10-minute plays. Fortunately, steadily rising levels of accomplishment on page and stage have made recent endorsements of these yearly 10-packs easier to calculate. The three and a half star rating is the average of the 10 plays–reflecting a range from a rare five stars to two.

Worth the price of admission alone is Holy Hell, Barbara Lindsay’s creepy set of terraced monologues by a survivor of a car wreck (Barbette Hunter) and the man who caused the accident (Greg Hohn). Superior performances under Rob Hamilton’s direction elevate the suspense.

Refreshing and highly recommended: Larry Gets the Call, about an encounter between a clerk at Borders Books and the Almighty; the comic genius of Greg Hohn’s self-deprecating swain in Right Sensation; J. Evarts’ character essay in Ryan’s List; and the inspired silliness of Doug Reed’s TheIdiot’s Guide to Classical Music. Not as successful: the series of wartime issues that get muddied when Jerome Oster piles them on top of each other in Physics.

10 by 10 Festival
* * * 1/2
ArtsCenter in Carrboro

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