By Philip Pearce
PAPER WING THEATRE deserves a pat on the back for the way it supports local playwrights in the making. Each year, scripts submitted to the company are given a staged reading at Paper Wing’s small Fremont Boulevard venue. The one that’s judged to be best gets a full-scale production at the Hoffman Avenue playhouse.
This year’s winner, Mozambique, written by retired Monterey County DA investigator David Norum, has a powerful and convincing story but stumbles in the process of telling it.
It’s about Kevin McNamara, a genial and opinionated sheriff’s deputy with a happy home life and a job he likes doing. His three strongest relationships are with his patient and supportive wife Sarah, his bright and adoring teen-aged daughter Emmie and his cop-car sidekick J.T.
Then one night Kevin fatally shoots another deputy in the course of a routine police call. The apparent accident brings to light dark secrets from his past. What actually happened on the police call becomes increasingly murky before it finally becomes clear and deadly.
The Central African title refers to a protocol developed in the 1970s freedom wars of Mozambique’s neighboring Rhodesia. It requires that if you’re facing a silhouetted or unidentifiable opponent, you give a warning, then aim two shots at the body before directing the third at the head. It’s a discipline that has apparently become a standard ingredient of law enforcement training in modern California, and it figures in Kevin McNamara’s downfall. The ugly revelations pile up against him, stripping him, piece by piece, of his job, his family and his closest friend, leaving him exposed, desperate and ultimately murderous.
As a plot, it has the ingredients of an authentic urban tragedy. Where it falters, in spite of some interesting moments, is in the ways Norum struggles to shape the action and motivate the explosive decisions of his four characters.
We see right off the bat that Kevin and his daughter adore each other, and that he supports and encourages her as she develops her skills as the lone female member of an otherwise all-male soccer team. We also soon see that Kevin and Sarah still seem sexually attracted to each other. And we learn that J.T. is a close family friend who’s grateful to Kevin for having saved him and his career from a past scandal. All this information is clearly established within minutes. Yet it gets repeated in such continuing detail that it takes 25 minutes before the actual story starts and we know what the play is really about.
Characters are clearly drawn and then make unlikely decisions just to keep the plot moving. Thus when the shooting has taken place, Kevin tries desperately to keep the news from his family, stubbornly clamming up and even attempting to throw the morning paper in the garbage. These are the sort of evasive tactics that might be used by someone who is timid or stupid or inexperienced, but Kevin is none of the above. He has been clearly depicted as the sort of strident extrovert who would quickly formulate his version of what has happened and make sure it got quickly and thoroughly aired. His unbelievable foot-dragging reticence seems to have been created to build up suspense, but it’s totally unlike the strong-minded, garrulous, wise guy we have by now been introduced to.
His warm relationship with daughter Emmie also gets cloudy and confused as the plot complications increase. In a searing sequence where the loyal Sarah turns against her erring husband, she taunts him with having ignored their daughter through the early years of her life. Well, maybe so, but we have seen dad and daughter relate so warmly and lovingly in recent live action that Sarah’s back story of earlier neglect, by comparison, seems cloudy and manufactured.
Norum’s long experience in law enforcement sometimes enhances the story but at other times gets in the way. As Kevin’s troubles begin to mount up, it is helpful and believable that his buddy J.T. would point to parallel situations the two of them have faced and overcome in the past. One cogent example is effective. Two or more additional lengthy reminiscences are just repetitious. We have got the point and we want the story to move ahead without having it clogged up with too heavy a load of local color.
The acting is strong but might benefit from more teamwork and less individual performing. Lj Brewer as Kevin and Jay Devine as J.T., adopt a loud-voiced declamatory tone that works well in the bombastic dirty-talking world of their scenes together. But it tends to overpower the swift and sometimes difficult-to-catch delivery of the two women. Usually one of my favorite actors, Brewer in his early scenes also tends not so much to say as to illustrate his lines. Talking about a guy he knows who plays golf, he swings a jocular invisible golf club; discussing soccer, he pantomimes bits of on-the-pitch defense technique. It’s an approach that’s sometimes just bearable in putting across tricky lyrics in a musical but jars even in the lighter moments of a heavy drama like Mozambique.
Allison Smith is likeable as Sarah but sometimes at the expense of the character’s underlying strength. She tends to seem tentatively hopeful in the early scenes and airily sarcastic in the later dark moments of conflict with Kevin. What is lacking is a solid justification for J.T.’s insistence that she is the unswerving rock that has always kept the volatile Kevin grounded in reality.
As the play’s wisest and most likeable character, Josy Mason, except for occasionally speaking too softly, is a strong and believable Emmie. She ably meets the challenge of her raging second act discovery that her father is not the flawlessly ethical hero she has always thought him, but a deeply flawed compromiser.
Director Mark Cunningham helps break the monotony of a lot of two-character confrontation scenes by keeping the performers moving around. Brewer in particular prowls the set convincingly and does a good job of keeping things active by draping himself across a lot of the furniture.
Do “play doctors” exist anymore? That’s what we used to call those men and women so savvy in the ups and downs, ins and outs of dramatic construction that they could help rookie writers turn promising but uneven scripts into well-crafted and playable material.
Mozambique continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. till June 25th. It needs work, but it’s work that would be worth doing.