Mark Scharf’s Scorpions, the latest entry in this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival, gets its title from the fable about the frog who agrees to carry a scorpion across a river. Midway through the journey, the scorpion stings the frog, who cries out, “Why did you do that? Now we will both drown.” The scorpion’s reply depends on the person telling the story—indeed, Sharf’s play gives us three variations, each with a different ending—but the gist of the explanation is that it is in the scorpion’s nature to kill … and the frog was a fool to forget this.
Scorpions the play is about a socially awkward young man named William (Gary Sugai). On his way to work one morning, he finds himself drawn into conversation with a homeless woman (Robin Rouse) outside a D.C. Metro station. Contrary to William’s expectations, the woman—who introduces herself as Mattie—is engaging and articulate; that evening as he leaves work, William invites her to dinner and, eventually, to share his apartment. Though Scharf avoids pinning down the extent of their relationship, William at least seems convinced that romance and a happy ending are genuine possibilities.
The scenes between William and Mattie are consistently effective. It is no easy thing to dramatize homelessness without resorting to stereotypes, and both Scharf and Rouse create a more nuanced portrait than my plot sketch might suggest. Mattie is no tragic heroine with a heart of gold, though she is as gentle toward William as her circumstances permit, and though her demons are real, for most of the play she is strong enough to restrain them—indeed, the broadest aspect of Rouse’s performance is an infectious, exploding laugh that fills William’s apartment with more life than it is accustomed to holding.
Director Miriam Bazensky does a nice job of pacing these scenes, and Sugai—though sometimes guilty of overacting, particularly during moments of heightened emotion—makes an endearing leading man. The world outside William’s apartment seems to stop, and neither William nor Mattie is in any hurry to start it moving again. Unfortunately, the outside world insists on interrupting, in the form of two secondary characters who are considerably less plausible than the leads.
William has a co-worker named Derek (David Kellam), who has a girlfriend named Zaynah (Kalin Noel); both Derek and Zaynah are inexplicably invested in William’s love life, to the point where their meddling is the immediate cause of the play’s unhappy ending. The implication at times seems to be that Zaynah is herself interested in William, but Scharf seems curiously evasive on this point—as far as I can recall, we do not learn a single concrete detail connecting Zaynah and William’s histories. Derek is forever justifying his own interest in William and Mattie’s relationship by protesting “Zaynah’s gonna grill my ass” for details … but this excuse seems forced. Scharf depicts the pair as attractive, trendy, and more or less shallow, and Kellam and Noel’s performances conform to these impressions—Derek and Zaynah undoubtedly have loads of attractive, trendy friends, and it is difficult to understand why they should devote so much of their own lives snooping in the life of a nerdy computer programmer.
If my objections to Derek and Zaynah suggest as many unfair stereotypes as their ultimate objections to Mattie, well, Scharf never gives us compelling reasons to credit William’s “friends” with nobler motives. As though to flesh out their characters, Scharf writes them both monologues with which to open and close the show; they are the ones who relate the fable of the frog and the scorpion, though why they do this is never clear. Derek, who is African American, even dons a dashiki before protesting, “I hate this ethnic shit.” (Why then did you put it on?) In the second act, he morphs from merely obnoxious to irredeemably despicable, yet to the end he insists that he has William’s best interests at heart; his reasons for caring so much what William thinks of him are likewise unclear.
The play works best when William and Mattie are allowed to cloister themselves from the surrounding city and simply talk—had he never introduced Derek and Zaynah, Scharf may still have guided his unlikely companions to the same destination, for the chasm that divides them is likely too wide to bridge—as wide, perhaps, as that which separates scorpions and frogs. Because neither Mattie nor William can fairly be called scorpions, it falls to their friends to poison their relationship (however they have chosen to define it) … an interesting angle, but ultimately—given the play’s strengths—a distraction.