Review: “Twisted Knots” (TTKD Productions)

Ryan Kitley, Mary Cross/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.
Ryan Kitley, Mary Cross/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.

Show: “Twisted Knots”

Company: TTKD Productions

Venue: The Royal George Cabaret Theatre (1641 N Halsted)

Die Roll: 6

Role-playing carries a particular power in the theatre. Not simply because drama requires actors to stand onstage and pretend to be people they are not. And not just because so many classic comedies deal in mistaken identity or women impersonating men for various plot-driven reasons. No, playing a role allows any character, and any audience member by extension, the freedom to make bold choices and take courageous action. Because if you are not who you say you are, maybe you won’t have to deal with the consequences.

That seems to be the hope for the couple at the center of “Twisted Knots,” a world premiere comedy presented by TTKD Productions, now playing at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre. When we first meet businessman Frank (Ryan Kitley) and escort Gina (Mary Cross), they are negotiating the cost of spending an evening together. It is New Year’s Eve in a swanky Chicago hotel, and Gina reasons that the financial details should have been decided before her arrival. But Frank is preoccupied by a sales deal gone bad, and does not have the thousand dollars he owes his companion. I hesitate to write more about the plot. Suffice it to say, the allegiances and identities of each character shift multiple times between midnight and morning, and the lost money takes on a deeper significant in the daylight.

Playwright Dale Danner clearly holds a lot of affection for his mismatched pair. If only that affection translated into dynamic dramatic conflict. His set-up promises relationship intrigue and kink. But Frank immediately bogs down proceedings by lecturing Gina on what makes a good salesman — the answer seems to be good luck. One could make the case that Frank gets in his own way here, thus delaying pleasure; but that lack of flesh and blood involvement with the woman onstage raises suspicions too early, as opposed to elevating tension. Sure enough, the two are not strangers, even though they speak in first level language, as if they have never met before. Danner’s command of character seems to begin and end with didactic philosophizing, and leaves out the human factor. We spy only the briefest hints of desire onstage, as the second act opens after an evening’s passion has been spent, and the role-playing leads to little in the way of social or emotional upheaval. The one bright spot in the script comes in the debate over the changing meaning of payment in the morning. But perhaps if Danner were less involved in speechifying, and more involved in what actually happens when two people with separate hearts negotiate their needs, the play would pulse with life.

Mary Cross, Ryan Kitley/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.
Mary Cross, Ryan Kitley/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.

The director and actors do their level best to invest the play with moment-to-moment feeling. Kitley brings a nice unease to the morning after, speaking and moving delicately across the room. He evokes haplessness well throughout, but meets his partner’s energy in a James Bonds scenario that plays out in the first half of the script. The production’s real stand-out is Mary Cross. She creates distinct personas for each major beat of the play, and when every façade rolls away, the audience is left with a raw, flinty woman, who is a better actor than her partner realizes. Meanwhile, director Tara Branham uses every inch of the large hotel room, pushing actors through child-like gymnastics in their make-believe games, generating ceaseless vibrant stage pictures, when the script fails to excite.

The furnishings for “Twisted Knots” come from the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago, and the most that can be said of Greg Pinsoneault’s handsome design is that it perfectly resembles a blandly stylish hotel room. Like the play itself, there is little distinguishing about the set, other than what the performers bring to it. Turns out playing a role can only generate so much spice, especially when the imagination is used to mask problems, rather than face them.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Two (maybe?) strangers meet in a hotel room, evoking snores.

RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”