Silence is golden in ‘Cigarettes & Chocolate,’ ‘Hang Up’ at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice

Matt Letscher and Marwa Bernstein star in “Cigarettes & Chocolate,” one of two one-act radio plays written by Anthony Minghella at Pacific Resident Theatre. (By Dany Margolies)

Posted: 07/30/17, 12:22 PM PDT | Updated: 4 days ago

Marwa Bernstein, foreground, with Matt Letscher in “Cigarettes & Chocolate” (Photo by Vitor Martins)

In their West Coast premieres, two one-act radio plays by Anthony Minghella grace the smaller stage at Pacific Resident Theatre. Though the two are produced as radio plays, the actors speaking from music stands, Michael Peretzian directs with enough subtext and reactions to start the audience’s imagination moving and filling in any blanks.

Minghella (writer-director of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The English Patient”) wrote “Hang Up” in the 1980s, when telephone technology was different but human feelings were of course the same as they are today. Minghella and Peretzian flay those feelings to reveal a couple’s innermost secrets even when the pair speaks in superficialities and lies.

She (Molly Schaffer) phones him (Michael Balsley) late at night, when he is not expecting to hear from her. Soon, the barbs come out, starting small with such topics as the music she wanted to listen to but couldn’t. She asks him to call her back, and the balance of power shifts.

He tells her he misses her. She won’t say she misses him. Undercurrents pour across the stage, from the dialogue and from the performances.

Jealousy, regret, neediness, anxiety — these appear fleetingly but cuttingly in the actors’ voices and on their faces.

She speaks of a relationship in which the man does all the talking for the deaf woman. Silence is a shield, a sword, a blessing and a burden. And it takes on a large role in the next play here, 1988’s “Cigarettes & Chocolate.”

Gemma (Marwa Bernstein) has given herself a vow of silence. This produces in her family and friends a compulsion to talk, mostly on voicemail as they leave rambling messages for her. Her silence also arouses their self-absorbed guilt, as they blame themselves for her choice.

Her partner, Rob (Matt Letscher), has had an affair with their friend Lorna (Ursula Brooks). He’s now certain this prompted Gemma’s silence.

The prissy Alistair (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) has professed his love for Gemma in an ill-advised letter, then blames the letter for her withdrawal.

Her friend Gail (Tania Getty) is in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy. Is Gemma jealous enough to refuse to speak?

Two good listeners take in the onslaught of guilt, while the talkers ignore the fact that these two also are silent, and their silence is soothing. Sample (Balsley) is Rob’s tolerant chum, Conception (Schaffer) is an Argentine psychiatrist-turned-housemaid, and they gently nod or look quizzical at all the right moments.

Did any of these people cause Gemma’s silence? Or is she mourning the lost opportunity to adopt a Vietnamese boy she spotted in Italy? Or is she mourning, or admiring, a self-immolating monk?

Gemma speaks in soliloquies, to herself and to us, in Minghella’s signature elliptical style.

Under Peretzian’s direction, the performances are evocative, clear, simple and moving. British accents, from these American actors, are thoroughly convincing.

Rebecca Kessin’s sound design adds restaurant clinks and nearby trains, helping the audience picture each setting.

Dany Margolies is a Los Angeles-based writer.
Rating: 4 stars
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 10 (no performances Aug. 4-6)
Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice (box office at 703 Venice Blvd.)
Tickets: $25-$34 (student rush $12)
Length: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Suitability: Teens and adults
Information: 310-822-8392,

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