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A question of words, words, words

Poet Derby Wright just wants to be left alone. A former professor at toney Wellesley College, the intellectual Wright has returned from seven years of self-exile in a remote cabin in France following the murder of his wife to house-sit the chic Manhattan co-op apartment of a wealthy friend. But he's still not ready for other people, and he's doing his best Garbo.

Mary Scunzio is also a wordsmith. Sort of. She's a high-powered ad executive who creates jingles to sell the likes of potato chips. She's in the apartment next to Derby's. She is young, beautiful, rich and lonely (really?).

The contrast between the creative artist and the crass ad world is a cliche of ancient lineage, and we know which side has the right stuff. In Camelot Theatre's world premiere production of Richard Manley's "A Question of Words," Mary's posh apartment, stage-right, and Derby's, stage-left, occupy the stage with no wall between them, like one of those split-screen movie shots that track two characters simultaneously. So we'll be visiting both the world of the artist and that of the bourgeois.

Early on, Roy Von Rains, Jr., plays Derby as sarcastic to the point of whiny in his quest for privacy. Will he succeed in driving away Mary (Barbara Henson), who's fascinated by having a once-renowned poet (he produced one good book then dried up) next door? Will she take the hint and leave him alone? Hint: the play has two hours to go.

Both characters are somewhat annoying in the early going. Von Rains creates a self-absorbed, closed-off Derby whose arc will inevitably involve his softening, his reintegration into society and the flowering of not only his charm but his long-dead heart. All through the love, or at least the like, of a good woman.

Henson is convincing as two-dimensional Mary. She's bright, but not as bright as Derby, and she knows it. She is affable, cute, funny and utterly available. Manley has sketched her lightly, like one of those young lovers in a Shakespeare comedy that are so generic as to be almost interchangeable.

If the play's action were confined to them it would be thin gruel indeed. The supporting roles add some texture. The always entertaining Pam Ward hits the right note as Mary's feisty mother, Lucille, who just happens to publish a little poetry magazine and be a big fan of Derby's long-ago work.

And there's the yuppie couple in the co-op's big corner unit. Clownish lawyer Ernie Frank (Aaron J. Falk) wants Derby out of the building due to his murky past. Ernie's wife, Christine (Rose Passione), a scatter-brained philistine with pretensions to culture, wants to score Derby as a prize to read to her reading group.

The Franks are comic villains who give Derby something to struggle against. But it isn't much of a struggle. With a vocabulary beyond poor Ernie's grasp and a far-fetched tale about a book of poems about bodily fluids, which horrifies Christine, Derby simply makes sport of them.

"A Question of Words" got laughs and bursts of applause from an opening-night audience. And it marks the first time Camelot has showcased new work on its stage, a bold move for any theater, and one that deserves kudos.

I was underwhelmed when I saw a reading of the play at the 2013 Ashland New Plays Festival. Then-ANPF Artistic Director Doug Rowe said he liked the characters' relationships. Camelot Artistic Director Livia Genise, who directed, said the play reminded her of "Sleepless in Seattle."

Despite capable performances throughout — these actors know and trust one another, and it shows — and Genise's usual sure-handed direction, I saw nothing in the production to compel a revision of that opinion.

Derby and Mary relate differently to language. It's a question of words. So that's it? As in "Sleepless in Seattle," there's a nudge toward romance from a relative, this time Mary's noodge of a mother instead of one character's son. But the play seems to say that if Derby just thinks differently, chooses his words differently, his problem will vanish. Some problem.

Even a frothy romantic comedy needs some credible conflict, and Manley has tried to spice things up. There's the inconsequential sub-plot with the Franks. There's Ernie Frank's Uncle Max (Buzz London), a powerful man who puts things right in the end (how many times have we seen that?), largely because of an implausible coincidence involving a link between Derby and Max's daughter.

There's a Viagra joke that goes on and on. Like a fart joke or accidental nudity, it might have been funny if it were a quick hitter, bang-bang. But it's stretched wa-a-y out, complete with some obvious puns. And that's at the end of the first act, when tension should build right to the break. Then it surfaces again in the second act.

In her notes to the play, dramaturg Jillian Short writes, "Who knew a poet could fall for a coyyrighter (sic) in advertising?" The answer is, everybody who's seen old movies.

The play depicts a person with a problem (Derby), then offers a solution (Mary). Come to think of it, that's the structure of countless TV commercials one suspects were written by people like Mary. It's all just a question of words.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Roy Von Rains Jr. and Barbara Henson star in the Camelot premiere of 'A Question of Words.' Photo Courtesy of Steve Sutfin