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Review: "Sam and Carol" at Gottwald Playhouse

Sophomore effort is well-crafted but doesn’t always hit the right notes.

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Actress Eva DeVirgilis and Actor Nicklas Aliff split the show’s 29 roles between them in "Sam and Carol" by David L. Robbins.
  • Actress Eva DeVirgilis and Actor Nicklas Aliff split the show’s 29 roles between them in "Sam and Carol" by David L. Robbins.

Can an artist share too much? Audiences may find themselves wondering after seeing David L. Robbins’ “Sam and Carol: a Play Where Everything Is True,” in its world-premiere run at Richmond CenterStage.

“Sam and Carol” is Robbins’ second endeavor into the theater, following 2012’s lackluster adaptation of his mystery novel “Scorched Earth.” Where his previous effort felt bloated by a cast of 16 and an overelaborate set, Robbins has disciplined himself here, telling his tale with just a table, chair and two actors. In a story told almost entirely through monologues, Robbins explores his parents’ relationship through good times and otherwise.

After beginning with the funeral of his mother Carol, Robbins relates the story of how his father essentially won his mother in a card game during World War II. The story is cute, and Carol is no fawning prize. Against the objections of her family she too enlisted in the military during the war.

But after their wedding at Hickam Field in Hawaii, the story runs out of steam. Sam gets a job as an air-traffic controller at Byrd Field in Sandston, and the Robbins boys grow up. Robbins tells a number of stories about how good his parents are, and inserts himself as a character a handful of times. Eventually -- without spoiling too much -- his parents go their separate ways.

Eva DeVirgilis and Nicklas Aliff split the show’s 29 roles between them, and results are favorable. DeVirgilis, who has starred in one-woman shows such as “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and “Hypocrites and Strippers,” carries the show handily, bouncing from personality to personality in an array of voices. Aliff, who hurls the table around the stage between scenes, is tasked with much of the show’s heavy lifting, dramatic and otherwise. His characterizations are more earthbound than DeVirgilis’, though this is largely because of the demands of Robbins’ script.

While “Sam and Carol” shows that Robbins is becoming more comfortable writing for the stage, his script doesn’t always connect in the ways intended. The play undoubtedly is well-crafted, but hits the odd tone-deaf note at times. At Carol’s funeral, the character David makes a crack about dry latkes. The joke comes off as arrogant.

In other moments, like when Sam soils himself or Carol is abusive, it feels exploitive. Even excepting these oversharing moments, the script doesn’t work hard enough to appeal to an audience outside of family and friends. Like someone showing off a family photo album, it’s usually interesting mostly to the person presenting.

As the audience finally sees Sam and Carol in the flesh for the first time at the story’s conclusion, dancing in their military uniforms, it’s hard to discern the message Robbins is trying to impart. If the play’s point is that love doesn’t necessarily have to last to be successful, it needs a stronger exclamation point.

He may not have written it yet, but it’s clear that Robbins has it in him to create a great work of theater.

Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare’s “Sam and Carol: a Play Where Everything Is True,” runs through April 25 at Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse, 600 E. Grace St. For information, call 800-514-3849 or visit henleystreettheatre.org.

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