Three sketches in search of a play.

Oakland's TheatreFIRST makes a point of unearthing neglected plays from abroad and introducing them to local audiences. But Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly, which debuted in London in 1986, isn't a play so much as what would be called skits were they the least bit comic -- three dramatic sketches loosely clumped around the effect war has on ordinary people. The first two don't develop far enough from their original premises to stand on their own, so they're lumped in with the meatier third piece in hopes of suggesting a larger picture. But the thread that links them is too thin.

In the first piece, Being Friends, an upper-class gay artist comes upon a hunky Quaker farmworker napping on a field in Kent during World War II. Through the flirty picnic they share, the simple Quaker tentatively grapples with his sexual curiosity and concerns about whether this really is a war to which he should be conscientiously objecting. Noah James Butler carries a canny mix of aristocratic idleness and wolfish attention as the very out-of-the-closet Eric, and David Koppel is amiable but a bit too one-note as simple Oliver, his excellent voice habitually breathless, with an incredulous smile fixed on his face. Not to spoil anything, but there's some male nudity in this one.

In the second short, Lost, also directed by TheatreFIRST artistic director Clive Chafer, Koppel immediately puts his clothes back on to become a naval officer visiting the mother of a comrade killed in the Falkland Islands. Sue Trigg, whose one-woman show Shirley Valentine has made the rounds of six local community theaters, plays a similarly neglected working-class British housewife, only this time it's her son who hasn't written or visited in five years. She has to come to terms with her grief and her anger all at the same time, going back and forth between bitter resentment and almost desperate hospitality to her mild-mannered visitor. There's a prescient bit in which she snaps, "Who's going to remember the Falklands War?" Although this play was written only four years after that war, two decades later it now requires a long note in the program and the lobby to explain what the conflict was all about.

The most intriguing playlet is the last, also called Making Noise Quietly, directed by Erin Gilley. A German painter and Holocaust survivor plays the part of Mary Poppins to a ne'er-do-well abusive drifter and his battered, feral stepson, who steals things and refuses to speak. How she came to take them in is not at all clear, and you'd never know they're in Germany and not England except by reading it in the program. That's because the play is solely concerned with analyzing papa Alan's behavior, and its effectiveness is very much to the credit of the excellent performances. Though shamed by the blind love of little Sam (a charmingly growling Dan Marsh), Butler's Alan somehow remains likable despite his unfocused rage, maybe because he is the most self-aware abuser ever. Milissa Carey exudes grace and stern dignity as Helene.

Only in this last piece is there a hint of something more than what we learn in the first five minutes, of unplumbed depths in Helene and unused potential in her charges. It finally leaves one wanting more. Who knows; there might even be a play in it.


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