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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Off The Wall delivers with "A Man Like Hong Kong"

For the few of you who may not know, Dale Gutzman has long been a major fixture on the Milwaukee theater scene. Once head of the now-defunct Milwaukee Players, he is a local jack-of-all-trades – acting, singing, dancing, teaching and whatever else is required for his productions and his livelihood.

His latest group, the relatively new Off The Wall Theatre in downtown Milwaukee, is courageously opening their 14th season with a previously unseen and untested new work, "A Man Like Hong Kong." Dale does not appear in it, but he introduced, wrote and directed it.

Even when presenting more conventional shows such as established musicals and dramatic classics, Off The Wall can always be depended upon to put their own unique spin on their material, and in this case, we have an intriguing, offbeat and self-contained espionage tale. This company aims to be eclectic, as well as entertaining, insightful, provocative and even controversial.

David Roper has the complex, crucial central role of Alistair Caruthers, a British agent living in modern-day Hong Kong. He sympathetically conveys a man in turmoil and despair, suddenly forced to tap on previously unused resources in order to survive. He also has the best British accent in the cast, perhaps aided by the fact that he is genuinely British! Anyway, Blake, his heartless "superior" (Rick Anderson), wants him to choose his own method of suicide because their somewhat shady, mysterious organization is uncomfortable with a nasty act from Alistair's past, when he taught school in London over 30 years ago.

He has since been married to a loving but perplexed woman, Flo (Marilyn White), and they have been living a fairly happy, comfortable yet somewhat distant life together for 25 years. Flo has grown attached to the vitality of Hong Kong and is reluctant to be uprooted back to staid old England, as has been suggested. Alistair cannot tell her the whole story, at least not yet, as she thinks he has had a sedentary desk job all this time. White gives a very poignant and touching performance. She even manages to convey some humor in a largely serious role. But like her husband, she is beginning to feel, or being made to feel, old and obsolete.

From this initial set-up emerges all sorts of surprises and chaos. Using a mostly sparse set and dim lighting, we get eight scenes of mainly dialogue, most of which involve only two characters. We do get some music and an opening slideshow to establish the locale, but otherwise must rely largely on dialogue to establish characters, settings and situations.

At almost exactly two hours, this constant conversation gets to be a little tiresome, but this is true of a lot of plays, the nature of the beast. Fortunately, there is lots of witty wordplay and delicious repartee to compensate. Action may be minimal, but Gutzman still builds a dazzlingly tense and sinister atmosphere, and it certainly holds your interest.

The other three players in the six-person cast are Lawrence J. Lukasavage as a suspicious waiter at Hong Kong's famous Peninsula Hotel, Alex Scheurell as a sexy local "boy toy" and Tairre Christopher as an aging opera star. They have supporting but vital roles, and there isn't a weak link in the entire cast. As usual, Dale can be relied on to get good portrayals out of his actors, many of whom are Gutzman "regulars."

We do get some acute observations that make this more than just a standard spy thriller. Dale obviously knows the British and Hong Kong cultures very well. He often compares and contrasts them, and his ear for authentic British dialogue and terms (blighter, bloody, chap, daresay, telly, etc.) never distracts from the plot and characters.

Among the many topics worked in are how computers and technology have taken over, never more so than in a "gadget city" like Hong Kong, and other lines that mention bombs, the Olympics, blossoms, tai chi, dim sum, fortune cookies, oolong tea and much more. He also pays homage to John Le Carre's spy novels, in which the complacent, polite British exteriors cover up all sorts of secrets, betrayals and derring-do. It works exceeding well here. The title itself is a little bizarre and puzzling, but this is a minor quibble.

Besides imitating some of their work, Gutzman even directly references playwright Harold Pinter and filmmaker John Woo, which he doesn't do with Le Carre, and these extra trappings actually enhance the play and presumably make good food for thought and discussion among audience members afterwards. Interestingly enough, the play is still good enough to stand on its own and doesn't even need all of these comparisons. There are also some sentiments expressed about old age, changing times and comforting memories, unusual elements to find so smoothly laced with espionage and intrigue.

The opening night was fairly well-packed, and it deserves to have a bigger audience, even with the many other choices around town in an already busy, new theater season. But that is enough for now. Please discover this show for yourself!

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