It is rather unfair to review Susan Middaugh’s new play, Black Widows, which opened Thursday night as part of this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival, on the basis of that performance. From the first scene, the actors struggled—in some cases mightily—with their lines and timing, and the lighting and sound board operators missed numerous cues. I would not be surprised if the show ran 10 minutes longer than expected—a disservice to any writer, but particularly one such as Middaugh, who has a knack for composing hard-boiled dialogue that demands a snappier delivery than the cast currently can give.
Black Widows unfolds in present-day Los Angeles, where Gwen and Vera, a pair of elderly crooks grown weary of credit card fraud and bogus lawsuits, hatch a more ambitious scheme. Posing as soup kitchen do-gooders, they befriend a homeless man on Skid Row and con him into signing a life insurance policy that names themselves beneficiaries. They then run him down in an automobile and file their claims.
The details of the plot are more complicated, of course, but for the most part Middaugh is able to simplify without sacrificing credibility. (She notes in the program that her inspiration for the story came from real-life incidents.) This is especially true in Act 1, which focuses less on the crime than on the developing relationship between the homeless man, John (Glenn Vitale), and Gwen (Babs Dentz), the more sympathetic widow. (For the beneficiaries to collect, the insured must live at least two years past the policy’s activation date, so Gwen has plenty of time to get to know John … and grow to like him.)
At the risk of sounding glib, when they are sure of their lines, Dentz and Vitale have wonderful chemistry together. Vitale gives an exceptionally physical performance, carrying the weight of the streets upon a hunched back and gimpy legs, and his wry smile suggests that on some level John knows he is being conned, if he could only discover the purpose. Yet he cannot help but trust the (seemingly) plainspoken Gwen, and in Dentz’s warming presence his crusty exterior gradually softens.
Dentz contrasts nicely with Ann Mainolfi, who brings a manic energy to Vera, a Russian immigrant who sees life as a Darwinian game of survival. (In an unnecessary Act 2 twist, we learn that her worldview was shaped in a Nazi concentration camp—Vera is sufficiently convincing, and certainly more frightening, minus the psychological baggage.) Saul Braverman contributes a sensitive performance to several key scenes as John’s friend Lloyd, a fellow Vietnam vet and denizen of Skid Row.
Under Barry Feinstein’s understated direction, the actors create in their best moments an absorbing, poignant reality. Alas, their efforts—and Middaugh’s intentions—are too often frustrated by faulty memories, and it is impossible to know how much of my confusion as the plot thickened stemmed from dropped or misstated lines. Motives in particular grow muddy in Act 2, as—spurred by their “success” with John—Vera and Gwen perform an encore on another homeless man. Only this body draws the attention of a homicide detective named Moe Goodman (Mike Ware). Detective Goodman’s investigation receives an unexpected assist from Vera, who begins pestering a claims agent (Crystal Sewell) to deny Gwen her share of the benefits. Her suspicions aroused, the agent charges insurance fraud.
I have no problem accepting that criminals unwittingly, stupidly give themselves away; I just have trouble accepting this of Vera. Perhaps had Middaugh written a scene in which we see the black widows falling out, Vera’s sudden desire to stiff her partner might make sense, but in fact Gwen disappears for much of Act 2. When she does reappear, it is in an interrogation room, where Detective Goodman so thoroughly grills her, she confesses within minutes. At some point (presumably during a blackout), they arrange to trick Vera into giving herself away, and sure enough, they succeed … only to my ear, Vera doesn’t say anything truly incriminating—certainly nothing to suggest she is guiltier than Gwen, whose name, after all, is on half the insurance claims (and whose prints are all over the hit-and-run car). Yet in the final scene Gwen has apparently been granted full immunity while Vera rots in a jail cell. The fact that the audience sympathizes with Gwen does not explain why a seasoned detective would trade two slam-dunk convictions for one.