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'Owl Bar' deserves a big toast

Scharf's play makes city pub feel just like home for the audience

By MARY JOHNSON | Special to The Sun, August 17, 2007

Playwright Mark Scharf has created a work as classic as its setting in his 26th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival offering, Last Night at the Owl Bar, which continues through Sunday at the Chesapeake Arts Center Studio Theatre.

Scharf, who has 40 plays under his belt, again shows his gift for creating a uniquely appropriate and welcoming environment, natural and clever dialogue and contemporary characters with familiar human frailties - companions worth spending two hours with.

Anyone with a fondness for the Owl Bar in downtown Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel will feel at home in the Brooklyn Park theater. Set designer Michelle Datz projects a photographic slide replica of the wise speakeasy owl ("the more he saw the less he spoke") who stares above the actual bar to provide authenticity. Datz also uses props lent by the Owl Bar. She artfully defines the bar space by ending the pub's floor tiles in a broken pattern immediately beyond the tables.

One disadvantage of a pub setting is that much of the action is limited to conversations at tables, which can produce a static element. However, director Randy Dalmas does what he can to provide motion through moving waiters and patrons, and keeps the action briskly paced. Dalmas has actors enter and leave through the theater and uses the front-row space for actors to address audience members and draw them into the action.

Actors converse with the audience, as might naturally happen in a pub setting. Two actors play multiple characters that include waiters, dwellers of distant locations and ghosts of vanished spouses. Together they help to tell the story of Jonathan Caldwell, a theater director whose life needs some direction.

In an opening monologue, Jonathan welcomes the audience into the cozy setting - and his life. Self-centered and needy, Jonathan is living with a friend, Max, after separating from his wife of 20 years and losing his two children in a custody battle. Actor Steve Lichtenstein's Jonathan is equally adept at delivering stand-up comedy and relating the ups and downs of his fling with Max's ex-girlfriend, Annie.

Once a month, Jonathan meets his widowed friend Rebecca (Katzi Carver) at the Owl Bar, where they mostly discuss his problems in finding a soul mate. Rebecca knows Jonathan is better than his actions would sometimes indicate. Without self-pity Carver conveys Rebecca's sadness at losing her "beshert" husband and her loneliness at her daughter's recent move out of their home.

Jonathan's other sympathetic friend, Max, who opens his home to Jonathan, is vigorously played by John Lasher, who conveys Max's inability to cope with losing Annie. So distraught is Max that he records all of Annie's old phone messages so he can continue to hear her. Lasher invests Max with vulnerability, decency and strong passion that peaks when he learns that Jonathan has slept with Annie.

Tiffany James plays Annie and other minor roles - she is listed in the program as "All-Purpose Woman." Annie struck me as one of Scharf's contemporary archetypes: a strong, sexually liberated career woman, who is perfectly played by the always in-control James.

In a her smaller roles, James reveals versatility, creating believable characters with minimal dialogue.

Listed in the program as All-Purpose Man, Mike Ware is a commanding presence in a variety of small roles. His Mayberry-esque turn provides some of the play's biggest laughs. Ware also plays a disdainful French waiter with an amusing accent as well as a sensitive portrait of Rebecca's dead husband.

For this unique Baltimore setting Scharf has created an all-purpose cast of classic human characters, seeming to have sprung full-blown to life. In a post-performance conversation I mentioned Jonathan's uncanny resemblance to a former neighbor who'd faced a similar marital disintegration, and Scharf responded that he'd hoped his play would resonate with us on such levels.

This is the kind of show that perfectly fits CAC's intimate 200-seat Studio Theatre, illustrating what a gem this underused space is. I can hardly think of a better use than in celebration of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Too often it seems we have little cultural connection with our metropolitan neighbor to the north.

Last Night at the Owl Bar by Mark Scharf

Review by Martha Thomas on WYPR

Originally aired Monday, August 13th during the Maryland Morning Show

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which has been around for 26 years, is a chance for wannabe scribes to stick their toes in the water without quitting their day-jobs. Each year, the Festival jury reviews a wagon load of scripts and a handful are chosen to be produced by small theatre companies around town. It’s a “something for everyone” celebration. This summer’s nine plays Barbie dolls confronting abuse at the hands of little girls, the parallel lives of two mothers during war in the Middle East and a banking assistant who takes on capitalism. Last Night at the Owl Bar is Mark Scharf’s story of Jonathan, a middle-aged man who’s reeling from his divorce and in search of his soul mate. While it is physically set in Baltimore’s iconic Owl Bar in the Belvedere Hotel, the play’s primary locus is the head of its main character – played with great amiability by Steve Lichtenstein. Jonathan opens the play with a discourse on theatre. An award-winning stage director, he’s unable to get a handle on his own life. He meets his friend, the recently widowed Rebecca, at the famous bar and, under the watchful eyes of the stained glass owl; the two indulge in sorrow and soul searching. From time to time, Jonathan’s imagination takes over and he steps out of convention to confront demons and dreams in such exotic locales as Afghanistan, Paris and Mayberry, RFD. He also manages to fall for the wiles of his roommate’s ex and subsequently confronts the man’s fury. Scharf isn’t shy about taking on oversized issues including the nature of love and friendship, fidelity and mortality. Sometimes, his questions loom too large for the modest setting of his play – the dialogue leaping bravely into depths too profound for the skills of the actors. But just when you begin to feel squeamish, Jonathan walks downstage and looks you in the eye to remind you that he’s just a likable everyman and this is meant to be fun. Scharf, who writes Red Cross training manuals by day, has been honored for his efforts as a playwright with grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, as well as fifteen plays staged by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. The Festival, which he also Chaired for three years, gives him a chance to get the script and characters out of his head, he has said, brought to life by a director and a cast. In Last Night at the Owl Bar, his most personal work to date, Scharf has done an admirable job of crafting a script that thankfully hovers just above the surface of self-indulgence. His Jonathan resists drowning by consistently returning to levity and healthy self-analysis. I don’t think Scharf will be quitting his day-job any time soon, but he should certainly keep plugging away at this playwriting stuff and continue to take full advantage of the Festival to bring his stories to life.