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Talented actors can't overcome sour notes in 'Voice Lessons' script

Meet Virginia. She's an oversharing, overbearing community theater actress with a voice like a broken fog horn and a personality to match.

She is also the gravitational center of Justin Tanner's disjointed, juvenile and sporadically chuckle-worthy one-act play "Voice Lessons," which had its local debut Thursday night on the Alleyway Theatre stage.

Virginia, played with valiant effort by Joyce Stilson, has hired a voice teacher to help her mold her instrument into a more "marketable" form. She has her eye on Nate (Darryl Hart), a voice coach who agrees to take her on for a huge fee. After Nate reluctantly agrees to the arrangement, the two embark on a relationship that yields very little in the way of improvement for Virginia's voice or career, edification for Nate or entertainment for the audience.

The play, first produced in 2009 at Los Angeles' Zephyr Theatre with Laurie Metcalf in the role of Virginia, attempts to get to the roots of the misplaced self-confidence common among artists at every level. In the course of the story, we learn that Virginia's father was mercilessly cruel to her, that her love life is nonexistent, that her feelings are just too big for her to handle.

All of this, which we learn in digression after digression as Virginia (or Ginny) avoids the task at hand and resists the instruction of her teacher, is meant to manufacture sympathy for her character. But because it is couched in dialogue so seemingly tossed-off (not in a written-into-the-character way) and often so flatly written, that sympathy is sometimes tough to feel.

Despite this, there are some moments of touching humor, as when Hart plinks out the chorus from the R&B classic "Goin' Out of My Head" as Ginny blathers on. And, at least before the unexpected introduction of a third character, Sheryl (Kim Piazza), the interaction between Hart and Stilson can be both funny and sweet.

But during the second half of the play, things fall apart. If they were ever together. By some strange twist, Ginny's nemesis and fellow actress Sheryl (whose name might as well be "Conflict") had been living with Nate and carrying on a relationship with him while training to audition for the role Ginny covets in a community theater production of "Brigadoon."

When it comes to light that Nate has had a complex and disturbing past, which includes multiple drunken sexual encounters with a mentally challenged woman, all claims this play might have had to being anything more than a poorly conceived farce go up in smoke.

Stilson proves herself a gifted comic actress here, but this scatterbrained material bests her in plenty of spots. Her performance achieves occasional stretches of genuinely affecting humor but is punctuated with too many false moments that take us out of a narrative that was never much fun to inhabit in the first place.

Hart, similarly challenged by Tanner's unwieldy dialogue and cliche-ridden writing, does his best to come across as a human being. That he fails to do so convincingly -- and that the piece as a whole lands with a thud rather than a torrent of laughter -- is largely the playwright's doing.



"Voice Lessons"

2 stars (out of 4)

Comedy presented by Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley through April 21. Tickets are $13-$25.

For more information, call 852-2600 or visit