Art of 'Aja' shows promise but needs a few tweaks

There's a lot of sharp acting in "The Art of Conquering Aja." A lot of good writing, too. And the set design is imaginative, given the resources (minimal) and location (the Ecumenical Christian Ministries basement) that director Tim Cormack has to work with.

But ultimately, "Aja" feels like something less than the sum of its parts; it shows promise but doesn't quite fulfill it.

Aja, played by Alyson Schacherer, is a kleptomaniac with a messy apartment. She's been working a temp job for four years, having dropped out of the art school her father believes she's been attending.

She seems to have it together, though, compared with her friend Errol -- "Flynn" to his friends -- an obsessive-compulsive played by Brenton McCall. Errol can't speak in contractions and has an unrequited crush on Aja.

Things seem fine until Aja's father, a fading Las Vegas crooner named Jackie, played by Cormack, shows up. He's getting a divorce, but there are secrets that Aja and her father are keeping from each other.

Aja's kleptomania has been restricted to small things -- Errol's medication, her father's sheet music -- but the stress induced by Jackie's visit prompts her to try to steal a painting: Kandinsky's "Painting with Green Center," from the Art Institute of Chicago.

That act lands her in group therapy with Sheree, played by Tina Connolly, an aspiring actress (the character, not Connolly) with a penchant for stealing beef jerky. Although there's a lot of humorous writing in this section -- Jackie and Errol both attempt thefts in order to get into the group therapy sessions and spend time with Aja -- the play also goes off the rails here.

For one thing, a Kandinsky painting already has been a central element in a famous play: "Six Degrees of Separation." Though the characters acknowledge that fact, the similarity seems less an homage and more like copying.

For another, we've already seen therapy -- a lot of it -- in the theater. It's an easy way for characters to talk out loud about their feelings and come to a quick resolution of conflicts. There's gotta be another way to do this.

And the eventual resolution of the Errol-Aja storyline would be nicer if we hadn't already been told, by the characters, what a cliche it was.

The acting was adroit across the board, though special plaudits go to McCall. He inhabited the character physically, his knees pressed together and arms folded in a desperate attempt to avoid too much contact with the diseased world he lives in.

Despite a structure that could use improvement, playwright Paige McLemore has an ear for tight, witty dialogue. She's given her actors some great characters. There's promise here.

"The Art of Conquering Aja" is the first production by Borogove Theatre. Two more performances are scheduled, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, both in the basement of Ecumenical Christian Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave.


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