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Elder Hostages

Ray Werner's trilogy about older folks plays well

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In theater, calling something "interesting" can be a kiss of death. Theater thrives on emotion, provocation, surprises, laughter and tears. No one but a milquetoast academic wants to see an interesting play. 

But when I say that Elder Hostages, now playing at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater, is an interesting production, I mean this as a compliment. Dramatist Ray Werner has scribed a trilogy of one-acts, all about older folks struggling through their twilight years — which is interesting. Every character is elderly, and their problems range from Alzheimer's to emphysema to lifelong regret — uncommon subjects and, yes, interesting.

The fictive ensemble is ethnically diverse, and their personalities are very well developed. If you've ever wanted to see an African-American woman who owns her own catering company, takes the bus and breathes through an oxygen tank, this is the place to find her. And she is, genuinely, interesting. 

Werner is a skilled writer, and if some moments are repetitive or expository, you have only to wait for a better moment. These are not wacky old men mumbling on a porch; these people have serious issues, tough decisions, quirky backgrounds. The cast, directed by Marci Woodruff, is solid, despite some line-dropping, and the standout is Roger Jerome, who performs in all three. 

Because there are three different stories, you may debate which one is "best." Each has its merits: "Mum's the Word" concerns two bickering Irish brothers; in it, Jerome and David Crawford deliver the strongest performances. "Night Song" concerns a man tormented by his dementia-afflicted wife, and although it's the best idea, the dialogue swirls blandly. The winner overall is "Wandering Angus," a play so bizarre and imaginative that it's impossible not to enjoy. Even the chaotic ending will make an audience smile. 

But the real victory belongs to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, which has settled into its new location on Liberty Avenue. Leaving behind the cluttered, cavernous garage of yesteryear, Playwrights has finally arrived in a worthy space. The second-floor playhouse is bright, spacious and well equipped. Artistic director Mark Clayton Southers has been richly rewarded for his labor and patience, and the Cultural Trust has unveiled another outstanding venue. At last, playwrights like Werner have a comfy place to call home.

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