Elizabeth Doss is one of those playwrights that will have this critic in a seat opening night. Many of her former plays, including the stunningly original musicals “Murder Ballad Murder Mystery” and “Hill Country Underbelly” have become favorites, and it’s always a delight to see what her mind can cook up. With her latest, “Mast”, here produced by Paper Chairs, she moves into more personal territory, treating us to a story from her own family tree, but in the process, loses some of the touchstones that made her previous work so much fun. While performances and production are all solid, the structure and pacing of the piece makes it difficult for the audience to grip tight to much of the action.

“Mast” is an extremely personal piece for Doss, being based upon the life of her own grandparents, and it’s obvious that there’s true affection for its characters, however, by trying to fit their entire lives into 90 minutes, the piece because scattered, fragmented. We rarely spend enough time in one place or situation to truly become involved or compelled. One of the play’s best performances, Noel Gaulin’s wicked and wild performance as the mad Dominican dictator Trujillo, is so fleeting, that we almost bemoan his absence for the rest of the play, and other performances, such as the sensitive performance given by Tiffany Nicely-Williams as Loretta, never has enough room to breathe. It also cuts into the development of the relationship between Sean Francis Moran’s Michael and his nanny Loretta, as there scenes always seem truncated and fleeting.

One relationship the play does get right is that between central characters Ann and Walter. Whether it be the sharp writing, or the amazing chemistry of the two actors, the couple if always believable, and when they are no longer taking center stage, the play is worse for it. It’s in these scenes that that play also ventures into the dizzying, surreal realms that made Doss’s former plays so much fun, with a sudden musical number about frog legs, as well as one of the intense lessons in Spanish you’ll ever encounter. The first half of the play shows great focus and sharpness, which makes the more rushed nature of the second half feel like even more of a disappointment.

Katie Bender, who some will recognize as the writer of accomplished plays such as “Slip River” and “The Fault”, is a dazzling ray of pure white light here as Ann, burning and glaring, daring us to look away throughout. Her performance is bursting with energy, and never less than captivating. Her partner in crime, Jesse Bertron, plays things more subdued as Walter, but still radiates cool, suavely swaying his way through and making his romance with Bender feel authentic. Indeed, when the two are together, you almost forget everything else, as they’re such a delight to watch.

There are many things to like in “Mast”, mostly lurking in the first half, and the gorgeous music by Mark Stewart, atmospheric and moody, truly helps to underscore the dramatic nature of the proceedings, all aided by Lisa Laratta’s subtle, minimalist, but effective scene design. If it were to extend its back half, and allow some of the later scenes room to move and grow more organically, “Mast” could be something special, but as it is, it still shows inklings of what made pieces like “Murder Ballad Murder Mystery” and “Hill Country Underbelly” so much fun.

“Mast” is playing through August 8th at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit paper chairs’ site at paperchairs.com.

Photo Courtesy of Paper Chairs

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