Forget saving the children or documenting a war that has ravaged a nation. All the two central characters in Olga Humphrey's ambitiously flavorful new play F-Stop set out to do in Africa is salvage their stunted careers.
One, Caleb Lawe (Christopher Burns), was a Rhodes scholar and a prosperous photojournalist. Now he's working as a freelance tabloid paparazzo, hoping his current assignment--shooting a B-movie star who's "UNICEFing" in Africa--will earn him a staff position and greater monetary rewards.
The actress, Susanne Ferrante (Patricia Randell), also had loftier ambitions before starring in a string of Japanese action films won her international fame as "Chop Susie" and hollowed out her insides. She needs some advantageous publicity to energize her career. "I want that Audrey Hepburn glow to wash all over me," she instructs Caleb at their first meeting, which quickly turns into a bitter insult-exchange--a sure sign that bonding is eminent.
Not surprisingly, their journey turns into one of survival and redemption, as both are deeply affected by what they encounter. But Humphrey has her sights set on the road less traveled, and that does make a difference.
In Africa, they encounter Caleb's ex-girlfriend, Charlotte (Rebekka Grella), now a UNICEF employee; Ken (Vincent D'Arbouze), an orphaned teen who dreams of studying at Oxford and latches on to Caleb as his assistant; and the play's most peculiar character, an African general (Charles Johnson), who holds no mercy for his countrymen but has a soft spot for Chop Susie movies.
Humphrey encompasses a confluence of bizarre styles that don't always coexist harmoniously. One hand reaches out for culture biting and political satire, and the other for hard-edged drama. Mixing in cinematic fantasy sequences (a nice touch) and an occasional monologue (which seem out of place), she doesn't get a firm grip on both.
With her razor-sharp wit, she's more skilled with satire, attacking American selfishness and self-indulgence in the face of much greater worldwide blight. But she becomes sidelined by illogical situations. When the General's forces abduct Ken, Susanne uses her celebrity status--and martial arts savvy--to try to rescue him. Even considering the General's predilection for her, it's quite a stretch to believe Susanne could pull of such heroics, and these shenanigans lend less credibility to the serious moments that follow.
Some poignant moments are also hampered by over-writing, which leads to excessive sentimentality. More than once we're told that the name Caleb means both "brave one" and "dog." And all the characters have a tendency to spout out desires and philosophies--when saying less would show more.
Eliza Beckwith's careful and fluent direction keeps the play's multifarious elements focused. She's also cast a first-rate ensemble. Burns' Caleb is a sympathetic presence without over-emphasizing his pain. As Susanne--who at times is written at a shallow extreme--Rendell makes her transformation into a woman of substance plausible and amusing. D'Arbouze shines as the bruised but still hopeful Ken, especially in a beautifully rendered jail-cell monologue. Heland Lee invests his six small roles with nuance and passion.
Though it's somewhat soft around the edges, F-Stop is an auspicious work by a playwright with a fresh, resonating voice, and it's a harbinger of more refined work still to come.
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