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FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code

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I like to bitch that my least favorite evenings are plays about suburban infidelity -- and that's true. But running a close second are plays about young men and their screwed-up relationships with their fathers. Arthur Miller, August Wilson, David Mamet, etc. -- I've sat through them all and, really, I just don't care. I'm sure Daddy was a son of a bitch and I feel bad for you but, honestly, get a therapist instead of a word-processing program.

I've recently learned, however -- thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Repertory world premiere of Tammy Ryan's FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code -- that I'm not crazy about plays about young women and their screwed-up relationships with their fathers, either.

FBI Girl is the Pittsburgh-based playwright's adaptation of a memoir by Maura Conlon-McIvor about her father, an FBI agent who was so uncommunicative as to be somnambulistic. (This reminds me of a joke. When told that the notoriously taciturn Calvin Coolidge had died, Dorothy Parker asked: "How can they tell?") All little Maura wants is acknowledgement that her father notices, if not loves, her. And such acknowledgment is, sadly, never forthcoming. Kids being what they are, Maura begins to believe that her father expresses himself in a special "FBI" code of covert signals and code words which she must decipher.

Since I haven't read it, I'm guessing that Conlon-McIvor's book is a poignant look at a young girl's yearning for unconditional love. This stage adaptation exhibits a way with a pretty turn of phrase, and enough humor to keep the storytelling light. Moreover, Ryan's obvious love of and admiration for Conlon-McIvor's life and book are evident in every moment. And when a playwright of Ryan's ability writes anything, you are required to sit up and pay attention.

So it's odd to say that maybe Ryan has allowed her estimation of the book to overshadow her own sense of theatricality. For when all's said and done, FBI Girl isn't a play and, frankly, I don't see how it ever could be. If you paid attention to the synopsis above, you'd gather that what we have is a story about people who don't talk to each other. Ever. For the whole of their lives. Conlon-McIvor's story is about a family opting for silence instead of emotion -- which is, to put it mildly, the opposite of drama.

A playwright I know once said: "There's no such thing as conversation on stage ... only confrontation." FBI Girl has neither. The big, heated blow-ups between the characters consist of silence and the exchange of significant glances. Again and again we wait for Ryan to explode all this repressed drama she's so carefully constructed, but that moment never comes. Subtext is a good thing in a play, but it can't be the only thing.

Fortunately, playing the role of Maura is Robin Abrahmson, an actress whose considerable charms almost blind you to the fact that what she's really doing is reading whole patches of a book to you as exposition and transition. Sheila McKenna directs the show like a house afire, and her fierce attention to pace keeps the play perking along rather longer than it otherwise might. Supporting performances by John Amplas, Nancy Bach, Theo Allyn, Joel Ripka, Mark Tinkey, Michael Fuller and Mary Rawson add polish to the evening, all wrapped up in Michael Essad's wonderful set design.

Perhaps I should mention that my own son, who graduates from high school this month, has expressed an interest in screenwriting. If the kid writes a movie about me, he's dead meat.

FBI Girl continues through June 10. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445.

The silent treatment: John Amplas (left) and Robin Abramson keep busy not talking to each other in the Rep's FBI Girl.
  • The silent treatment: John Amplas (left) and Robin Abramson keep busy not talking to each other in the Rep's FBI Girl.

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