‘The Business End’ at Yellow Sign Theatre

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You have only one more weekend to catch one of the most interesting pieces of theatre in Baltimore, a tragic parody of the plight of the B-horror screenwriter longing to create art. Mike Jancz penned this offbeat journey as part of Yellow Sign Theatre’s writing contest, and as Artistic Director Craig Coletta notes, it dovetails beautifully with the YST’s mission and their 2014-15 season (which previously included Melissa LaMartina’s thrilling adaptation of Bucket of Blood).

Ellen C. Jenkens (Vera), and Nicholas Parlato (Charlie). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.
Ellen C. Jenkens (Vera), and Nicholas Parlato (Charlie). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.

Drugs, exploitation, an endless stream of obscenities from Patrick Storck (in the pivotal role of cynical filmmaker, Harvey Eckelstein), dream sequences, and a strobe-lit murder appropriately celebrate the philosophical struggle between high and low art that undergirds this tale of Charlie (Nicholas Parlato), a gifted New York writer stuck penning schlock for the worst rip-offs of the horror genre (including The Monster of Obsidian Lake).

Some missteps prevent The Business End from being the best production of YST’s season. The pacing is slower than it should be to fully capture the old Hollywood style or deliver on the comic moments, and Jancz’s script has a few unsatisfying moments. For example, having Deucy enter Parlato’s apartment after he has fled the B-horror world for good and the cinematic credits are playing has the potential to be a clever commentary on the rules of art, but the execution is too brief (all Deucy does is call his name before a blackout) to deliver any metaphorical impact.

That said, there are enough beauties in the script to satisfy. Jancz makes clever use of mirroring the final scene of one of Charlie’s plays (from his days in NY) with a failed attempt to rescue Vera from her loveless marriage.  He also neatly encapsulates the unpredictable ups and downs of the entertainment industry in three conversations between Charlie and his agent Maury.

In whole, Jeffrey L. Gangwisch’s direction and video sequences make the production work. Taking full advantage of the three-tiered proscenium environment at the theatre (two raised stages and a movie screen), Parlato’s apartment is drab and cramped, and the studio office is even more packed and soulless (Lighting and scenery appear to be the chief contribution of local designer Eric Gasior, who is listed as Technical Advisor).

Nicholas Parlato (Charlie) and Jon Freedlander (Maury). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.
Nicholas Parlato (Charlie) and Jon Freedlander (Maury). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.

Lori Travis contributes costumes and makeup, capturing the mid-century industry style neatly with appropriate touches, such as the dresses Vera wears both in reality and Parlato’s fantasies. The video fantasies are highlights of the production. The combination of wild cinematic choices and simple graphics suggest the kinds of dreams of high art that a writer like Charlie might have, before his alarm clock tears him back to his cold reality.

Gangwisch draws a great deal of fun out of the combination of live performance reality and cinematic fantasy. When Charlie finally writes the really good script he has been striving for (Hunter S. Thompson-like, while tripping on sugar-cube hallucinogens), the ensemble actors (Ann Tabor and V Lee) enter the scene as the circus characters of the writer’s imagination.

The performances are in line with Yellow Sign’s vision, combining the stock characterizations of classic cinema, from the Beatnik props designer, Deucy (Jon Swift) to the gruff, manipulative, and disingenuous Maury (Jon Freelander), with a almost Delsartian poise and emotionally charged delivery. Parlato himself does a particularly good job of mixing social awkwardness, boiling passion, and touches of nerd rage to carry the audience through Charlie’s descent into depression, drug abuse, and mental collapse.  Freelander, Storck, Swift, Ellen C. Jenkens (Vera), and the ensemble characters deliver solid performances, but the script is so focused on Charlie’s story that there are only a few moments to see more than Vera’s friendly warmth and allure, or Deucy’s “chill out man” attitude.

Nicholas Parlato (Charlie) and Ellen C. Jenkens (Vera). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.
Nicholas Parlato (Charlie) and Ellen C. Jenkens (Vera). Photo by Jeffrey S. Gangwisch.

The result of this newest effort by Yellow Sign Theatre is a thought-provoking, always pleasant, and often delightfully kitchy experience at the theatre, with much to recommend it.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Business End plays through May 31, 2015 at Yellow Sign Theatre – 1726 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

LINK:
Chatting ‘Horror’ with Craig Colletta and Mike and Lori Travis at Yellow Sign Theatre by Lucrezia Blozia.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS10.gif