March 7 2012 12:00 AM

Jerry and Isaac Sprague score in a double feature


The two one-act plays could not be more different. Bill Helder, who selected and directed these two plays, has given his two actors — who appear in both — vastly different roles to play.

 In “Two Beers and a Hook Shot,” we have serious relationship drama presented in a naturalistic style: dark, painful-to-experience material. This is a play about the challenge in a father-son relationship to transcend past sins, to overcome sufferings and a raging emptiness, and to transform hatred to love through the magic of basketball.

“Death Knocks,” on the other hand, is a lighthearted confectionary delight, pure vaudeville at its best.

Actors Jerry Sprague and his grandson Isaac are thrown together in the first play as Dexter and Randy Jackson. They meet late at night at a pay-for-lights-by-the-quarter urban basketball court to play one last game, to say what might be final goodbyes after years of neither connecting deeply nor seemingly caring about each other.

Both wear heavy armor in these roles. Dexter, the father, has been through life’s mill, is divorced and down and out; he has been there, done that, done it all. He is worn-down. Jerry Sprague portrays Dexter effectively, with a slow, tired swagger, chest sticking out over a growing potbelly.  Breathing seems to be an effort, and those beers are essential to his daily existence. Emotion is contained, effort constrained — he intends to resolve long-buried issues but possesses none of the requisite skills to do so. Teenage Randy is resolutely oppositional, fiercely determined to beat the crap out of his father one last time on the basketball court, giving no ground, yielding not one compassionate inch.

There is a painful sense of reality to the efforts of these two warriors. It doesn’t feel like acting. Randy’s fiery diatribes are met with shoulder-shrugging impotence by Dexter until finally both warriors realize they cannot keep up their defenses. The resulting emotional breakthrough comes about more from a sense of resignation, that fighting one last time will not clear anything up. Dexter’s seeming patience is not so much patience, as much as world-weary despair.  He hopes for Randy’s eventual return, but quietly so, and weeps openly only when Randy is on the bus pulling out of town. 

The lights fade to black, the audience has but moments to reflect and, after a short intermission, these same two actors reappear on stage in a Woody Allen concoction about Death knocking on one’s door.

Talk about a channel-changing experience. Neither actor seems to be the same person. Jerry Sprague, as Nat Ackerman, has channeled a silk-robed, smart-assed version of what looks like Woody Allen himself, a full-of-himself character who argues that he still has everything to live for and bargains with Death for just one more day.

Isaac Sprague, now dressed in requisite black robe and whiteface makeup as Death, evokes the attitude and accents of Groucho Marx. He is crisp and funny and gets plenty of laughs. In “Death Knocks,” there are a few pauses when one can almost hear the vaudevillian snare drum ka-popping in the background. 

These plays are, allegedly, Helder’s directorial swan song. When someone like Helder steps out of the spotlight, however, he still casts a large shadow. One can only hope that another play will come along to entice Helder to continue on.

‘Two Beers and a Hook Shot’/‘Death Knocks’

Through March 11

Riverwalk Black Box Stage

228 Museum Drive, Lansing
7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$12; $10 seniors, students, military personnel

(517) 482-5700