Acting is strained in `Self-Portrait’

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 22, 1986

“Self-Portrait” has the makings of a good play: an interesting premise, dramatic lighting and softly lilting music. The problem lies with the actors.

With the exception of Patricia Gallagher, the Zebra Theater actors seem to be concentrating too much on delivery and not enough on little details that would give their characters some depth. For instance, audience members sitting by the side of the stage could see that one character who was supposed to be playing the piano barely went through the motions.

Robert Maffia portrays the lead chracter, Tom Murphy, a 33-year-old painter who is painting his self-portrait as his birthday present. Through no fault of his own, Maffia looks a good 10 years younger than his character is supposed to be. However, this could be overlooked if Mafia brought some soul to his role.  We don’t perceive him as the tormented artist he professes to be.  Rather, he comes across as a smart aleck who isn’t very likable or believable.

“Self-Portrait” is supposed to be about a love triangle, but it’s not clear whether that triangle is between Maffia, his girlfriend Alena (Johari Johnson) and his ex-wife Ruth (Gina Paglia), or between Maffia, Johnson and her lover Michael. In any case, while Johnson prepares a special birthday dinner for him, Maffia remembers the ex-wife who couldn’t live on an artist’s salary, her wealthy and domineering parents, and his poor, simple parents.

The actors can’t rely on hazy flashbacks with sound fade-ins, and this causes some problems when Maffia is on stage with his “memories.”  The sound of five actors talking, even when they’re careful to speak softly, is cacophonous at best. Any drama they might be striving for is buried beneath the noise.

Gallagher is excellent in her role as Maffia’s mother. Wearing a dowdy dress and speaking in a where-have-I-gone-wrong voice, she is believable because she doesn’t seem like she’s acting.

Entrances by all but one of the actors from the audience are effective, as is the setting. But the aesthetics just don’t make up for the strained acting.  

August 22, 1986

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