Still contentious, after all these years

JAXON WHITERobert Walsh and Heather Girardi in a scene from “Walking the Volcano’’ at the Vineyard Playhouse. JAXON WHITERobert Walsh and Heather Girardi in a scene from “Walking the Volcano’’ at the Vineyard Playhouse. (Jaxon White)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2009

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VINEYARD HAVEN - In format more like a short-story collection than a novel, the eight 10-minute plays that make up Jon Lipsky’s “Walking the Volcano’’ weren’t written as a unit. In fact, they represent eight years’ worth of disparate entries for the Boston Theatre Marathon. And yet in the show, now receiving its premiere at the Vineyard Playhouse, certain recurrent themes emerge - some a bit too schematically - as Lipsky hopscotches through the decades, from 1964 to the present.

Foremost among these themes is friction between the sexes - specifically, what Lipsky, in his program notes, pegs as “a certain kind of passionate, volatile relationship . . . endemic to those of us who came of age in the ’60s.’’ Not coincidentally, the second wave of feminism came of age then, too. It’s a bit disconcerting, four decades later, to see women repeatedly depicted as anchors and men as adventurers at odds with the demands of domesticity. More than half of the plays deal with absentee fathers and the embittered women they left behind.

Each segment is preceded by lava-lamp-like projections and a short soundtrack mixing contemporary songs and bits of broadcast news. There’s an implicit invitation - for older audiences at least - to play “Where were you when . . . ?’’

The first quartet of plays represents youth, with Heather Girardi and Christian Pederson - extraordinary chameleons, both - pitted against each other in a series of fraught situations. In “Flying Above the Clouds,’’ set in 1964, two jet-setters, jammed in an Air India bathroom, flirt as they hammer out who’ll be responsible for smuggling what illicit substance (or species). “Wake Up Call’’ (1968) skips to Saigon, pre-Tet Offensive, and they’re war correspondents, trying to hang tough but getting emotionally attached. “Girl in the Basement’’ (1973) concerns two romantically entangled but mutually competitive musicians trying to score a recording contract. Girardi proves a crack Grace Slick imitator, Pedersen a really good blues guitarist (he wrote the music for the title song), and their clashing egos yield easy laughs.

However, the final play in this section - “The Mistake’’ (1979), about a former debutante and her social-climbing ex-suitor meeting up at the Saratoga races - is problematic. Lipsky takes way too long to tease out the couple’s back story, and once exposed, it’s overly lurid. Nor is credibility helped by the otherwise astute costume designer Chelsea McCarthy’s decision to dress Girardi like Vicky Lawrence in “Mama’s Family.’’ Lace gloves, a flouncy hat, and a ratty fur boa - really?

In the second half of the program (1993 on), Lipsky shifts his focus to a post-courtship generation, though most of these older men (all robustly played by Robert Walsh) are still avidly on the make. The female pursuees (Marya Lowry) are alternately receptive and downright vicious. “You make toy sailboats for rich sleazebags!’’ snaps one, incensed that her off-and-on paramour and co-parent, a Vineyard boatwright, expects her to sail off into the sunset with him.

Girardi resurfaces - once again, unrecognizable - as a skeevy teen in “The Drum’’ (2004). Here the dialogue is perhaps meant to critique Northern California post-hippie muddleheadedness, but it’s troublingly portentous even so, and laced with an unusual degree of misogyny. If the character Walsh plays is meant to be hateful, he succeeds.

Some of the playlets - like the final one, in which Lowry nicely underplays a former radical coping with terminal cancer - seem fully realized, while others feel like fragments. Yet, as energetically paced by Vineyard Playhouse artistic director MJ Munafo, all exhibit Lipsky’s gift for crafting dramatic confrontations.

WALKING THE VOLCANO: A Short Play Progression Play by Jon Lipsky

Directed by: MJ Bruder Munafo. Set, Basia Jaworska-Silva. Lights, Fred J. Hancock. Costumes, Chelsea McCarthy.

At Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven, through Aug. 8. Tickets: $20.00-$37.50.


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