Theater Review: Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity Mixes Family Drama, Religious Comedy, But Lacks Gravitas

The season-opening Profanity at Undermain Theatre is also a world premiere. Sylvan Oswald’s 1950s-set dramedy, thinly based on his own family’s exploits, takes place in a real estate office run by two brothers (the third, a heroin addict, wanders in every now and then to nap on the couch). This business is crooked, and that fact is hinted at early and often before exploding in a violent confrontation that’s also fueled by the brothers’ attraction to their shapely new secretary. Director Katherine Owens delivers a taut production that’s propped up by stellar acting, but Oswald’s spotty script doesn’t seem ready to support the weight.

Last September Bruce DuBose was wowing Undermain audiences with his epic one-man performance in An Iliad. This year, he’s delighting in the tiny eye rolls and exasperated sighs of Gersh, Profanity’s eldest brother. Gersh spends his evenings frantically penning his memoirs, a fact that his younger brother Leo (Michael Federico) constantly needles him about. “What have you ever done that’s interesting?” is the subtext, but by the end it’s clear that Gersh has done plenty and is desperate to in some way atone for his crimes.

As Leo, Federico is hapless, dreamy, and scary all at once. A perpetual screw-up, it’s his disorganization that prompts Gersh to bring in Vivian. Shannon Kearns-Simmons so completely inhabits the sharp single mother that it’s hard to remember she doesn’t speak with that Philly-Jewish accent in real life. Outfitted in Giva Taylor’s properly gorgeous dresses and skirt suits, Kearns-Simmons is stunning as both the catalyst and the glue of the action.

Her precocious daughter Esther, played cannily by Southern Methodist University undergrad Katy Tye, is given the child’s permission to speak the blunt truth—a trope that’s shared with Whitey, the third brother. Chalk-faced, slurring, and sweaty, Alex Organ plays against type wonderfully but is given little to do other than shuffle around and collapse, until he suddenly speaks (and sings) eloquently near the finale.

Esther, meanwhile, is gripped by a skewed need to understand her Jewish heritage. She wants her bat mitzvah to be in Greece, asks her mother if God has ever spoken to her, and plays Nazi War Camp with Gersh. It’s the show’s highlight when the older man stalks the child through John Arnone’s graveyard of filing cabinets, the sound of bullets whizzing by and shells exploding in the distance (courtesy of Paul Semrad) and Steve Woods’ flickering fluorescent lights casting eerie shadows. The deeper into the 90-minute play we delve, the easier it is to question if the characters’ quirks come from the actors/director or the script.

Why is Whitey an addict? What is this vague organized crime syndicate everyone refers to? Is there a reason Gersh is the way he is, or is he simply a jerk? Oswald mentioned in a recent interview with D that he plans for Profanity to be part of a trilogy. Perhaps fleshing things out over two more plays will help answer some of the big questions he’s left hanging here.