Building emotion, actors earn laughs, tears

“I always forget something,” laments a young husband while his wife berates him for buying the kind of orange juice with pulp that they don’t even like and the wrong kind of detergent.

In “Below the Belt,” playwright Dennis Bush explores the tedium and disgusting intimacy of five ordinary relationships, culminating in a mundane tragedy.

Jane C. Walsh expertly directs a fine ensemble cast in this one-act play presented by the College of Southern Nevada Department of Fine Arts.

Using the most minimal of minimalist sets with a cast dressed in mime’s costumes of black pants and white shirts, Walsh focuses our attention on the characters who step out of a faceless chorus of 10 actors.

With skillful timing, lines merged in a chorus of voices emerge into a single character’s voice. In the opening, this chorus of voices establishes that the action takes place on one beautiful summer day.

Two brothers complain about their relationships, or lack thereof. Reed Huddleston as Bill is a tall, handsome straight man to the funny Raymond Gutierrez who plays the short and bespectacled nerd, Jerry.

The tolling of a bell serves as a dissolve from one vignette to the next as we move to Molly, played with laugh-out-loud panache by Asia Pitts, kvetching about her life with her cop husband, Curtis, played by Jonathan Roupp.

Curtis is bored by his wife’s boring life and occupies himself with online romances. This, in turn, dissolves to Bill and Jerry discussing their own online love lives.

We next encounter Kelsey Jeralds as Trish arguing with Alexander Medlicott as Xander. Xander explains to Trish, “I need you to listen when I yell.” They are funny like Blondie and Dagwood, though in an angry way.

Balancing Bill and Jerry are sisters Amy (Devon Sparks) and Selena (Madeline Angulo). Amy started becoming sick when their mother was diagnosed with cancer. She has suffered a long series of mishaps and ailments and she now complains of irritable bowel syndrome.

Sister Selena has become a chronic caretaker to first their mother and now Amy. Both Sparks and Angulo play their roles with deadpan earnestness and irritable bowel syndrome has never been funnier.

A third couple, Willow and Ray (Breanna Jefferson and Oscar Damasco), have young children. Willow complains that they argue over nothing. She would like some serious alone time and isn’t getting it. Ray daydreams about freedom and he forgets household basics at the grocery store.

While the other couples are funny because we can recognize our own petty bickering in their arguing, Willow and Ray’s arguments have a more sorrowful undertone.

The rhythm of the play moves in and out from general comments voiced by the ensemble as a chorus to the bitterness and humor of each of the individual characters as they explore their everyday problems of work and relationships, having kids and fidelity.

We know from the start that the play ends in tragedy, but we have no idea what that may be and Bush creates a heightened sense of suspense through our anticipation. He also cleverly provides a couple of red herrings.

Each couple’s petty problems are funny in their monotony, but Bush shows his skill as a writer when he casts a shadow of significance on their bickering through the anticipated — but nonetheless surprising — tragedy that ties each of the parts into a whole.

The characters might have been presented as sketches, but Walsh’s young actors build genuine emotion and earn the audience’s laughter and tears. Damasco is especially heartbreaking as Ray. Jefferson’s Willow is less sympathetic, but her performance is all the more shattering because of it.

“Below the Belt” ends with the tolling of the bell and Bush manages to bring fresh meaning to this old cliché.

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