"Dissident" and "Vera Baxter" at Santa Monica's Off Main Theatre are advertised in the program as "plays from the new French theater." The accuracy of that description depends on how old a play--or play style--can get to be and still be considered new.
Michel Vinaver's "Dissident" was written in 1978; Marguerite Duras' "Vera Baxter" in 1977. Both are acquired tastes. Both develop statically in a spare, elliptical, repetitive style reminiscent at times of Beckett and Pinter (without the genius), at other times of Duras' 1959 landmark film, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour." New is, therefore, an arguable label. That minor polemic aside, the Aresis Ensemble's staging of these one-acts (jointly by artistic directors Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe), is at best respectable, at worst ponderous.
"Dissident," translated by Paul Antal, dwells on the nagging tug-of-war between an overworked mother, Helen (Eve Sigall), who eventually loses her job and her underworked shiftless son, Phillip (Michael Shore), who eventually finds a factory job his mother considers beneath him.
Scene after scene on Duncombe's stark black-and-white set revolve on Helen's stultifying existence and Phillip's desire to please her without knowing how.
Vinaver is more concerned with the dynamics than the details of the relationship. Sigall and particularly Shore give creditable, faceted performances of depressed, emotionally constipated people. But the undertaking remains a painfully studied exploration of un explored lives.
"Baxter" dances all around Duras' favorite subject: sexual tension or, as more windily stated in the program, "the passion of impossible love and the waning of desire." It is a grander proposition than this production or this play achieve.
Vera Baxter (Fiona Guiness) is the wife of a wealthy womanizer who likes to telephone at any given moment and let her know what he is doing and to whom. They own this grand house in the south of France that Vera loves and that he has therefore ordered sold.
To counter such wantonness, Vera has taken a lover in a self-canceling act of defense and destructiveness. In a series of cliche-ridden scenes that involve this lover (Cully Holland), a woman who identifies herself as a former bedmate of Vera's husband (Strawn Bovee) and the stranger who is buying the house (Duane Whitaker), we are given endless ruminations on What It All Means.
The play moves like molasses. It is murkily lit by Kevin Graves. Duras uses antiquated conventions that Michel and Duncombe underscore by indulging every excess. "Vera Baxter" is dismayingly perverse: turgid, tawdry, ingrown, sentimental. The language has some originality (the translation is by Philippa Wehle), but becomes lost in inaudible whispers and self-important poses and pauses. When listening takes that much effort, it's too easy to give up.
Costumes by Tic Michel are adequate. Set design of any kind is always difficult in this theater that is blighted by an awkward support pillar center stage and another in the audience. Duncombe can't be blamed for only partially resolving the problem. The Off Main is rather daunting even when it doesn't go in for such daunting material.
Performances run Thursdays through Sundays at 208 Pier Ave. in Santa Monica. "Dissident" goes on at 8 p.m., "Vera Baxter" at 9:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 31. Tickets: $7 for one play, $10 for both; (213) 399-8105.