For last summer's first installment of VERB, an evening of one-acts adapted from literary short stories, Portland Arts and Lectures selected works by Raymond Carver, an author whose blue-collar weirdness proved difficult to translate to the stage. This year, the nonprofit has eased up a bit with lesser known writers and a theme: "Love's Labors: Lost & Found."
In Russell Banks' "The Moor," a middle-aged man (the great, grizzled Ted Roisum) encounters the now-elderly woman he had an affair with (Michele Mariana) when he was just a young 'un. Of all the selected tales, this one has the most dramatic potential, but it's damaged by playwright Howard Aaron's flawed script, which finds Roisum's Warren narrating most of the story via silly audience asides.
Elsewhere, Grace Paley's "Love" presents a geriatric couple talking about poetry. Lon Otto's "Love Poems" is essentially an extended joke about an aspiring writer's true reasons for writing a love poem.
The remaining one-acts are based on Charles Baxter stories, a Midwestern, character-focused writer who is, in his quiet way, as difficult to interpret dramatically as Raymond Carver. In Baxter's "Saul & Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan," novices Kurt Conroyd and Lauren Hall are a bored married couple living out in the country. Scene after scene has the duo kissing and groping, a painful sight thanks to their total lack of chemistry. Both appear again as a couple in Baxter's "The Eleventh Floor," though Roisum mercifully takes the reigns as Conroyd's widower, alcoholic father.
Despite Roisum, however, "The Eleventh Floor," and all the stories in VERB, it flatlines. Banks and Baxter, in particular, can spin prose that entrances. Here, onstage, their work feels purposeless. Nobody in this production is energized, from the techies involved in the high school-quality set changes to director Julie Akers' listless staging. Arts & Lectures specializes in high-profile readings and, well, lectures. But theatrical writing and creating is a whole different beast, and one they have not tamed.