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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last week we talked about a musical titled Working; this week we're going to talk about a play that could be titled Not Working.

Take a guess where the play is set -- Detroit, Michigan.

Credit Los Angeles-based writer Vince Melocchi with a good sense of timing. His new play Lions shows a handful of men trying to live with dignity despite the looming fact that there is no role for them in the new American economy.

Lions appeared last fall at Pacific Resident Theatre, just as the Detroit auto companies were admitting they were out of cash. The play has proven so popular that it's been re-mounted by PRT and extended through May.

The dictionary says that Lions are A) large carnivorous feline mammals and B) men of great strength or courage. Melocchi plays on both of these definitions: his characters spend most of their free time at a local watering hole in Detroit's 10th Ward, where in their manly, Midwest way, they display both their animalistic traits and strong survival skills.

The third definition of Lions that the play's title refers to is the Detroit Lions, the hapless NFL team that has never been to the Super Bowl. Melocchi's play is loosely structured around the Lions' 2007 season, where they were on track to make the playoffs, only to collapse in the final weeks. The playwright paints these Detroit fans as the tragic counterparts of Saturday Night Live's comic Bears Fans, the one's who see all of life's problems through the prism of Mike Ditka and “Da Bears.” Without catch-phrases and with subtlety, Melocchi shows how these Lions fans see the hapless football team as both symbolic of their dreams of resurrection and at the same time, as the confirmation of their failures.

There are other things Melocchi gets right with Lions. He has a good ear for dialogue, making the men's barroom talk believable and humorous, yet always focused. Also, his characters are distinct and well-defined: Mike “Biscuit” Croissant, a man laid off from a metal shop (who now makes his living picking up corpses for the city morgue) and the main character, the out-of-work John “Spook” Waite are both particularly meaty roles that are played with distinction at PRT by Haskell V. Anderson and Matt McKenzie.

With these and other strong performances, not to mention the timeliness of the subject matter, it's tempting to lionize Melocchi's play as something much greater than a small actor's showcase. Unfortunately, Lions feels unfinished, stuck somewhere between a one-act, slice-of-life character study and a full, three-act American tragedy.

Much of the problem comes from the character of John “Spook” Waite's wife, Beth. Not only is she played an actress (Valerie Dillman) who looks young enough to be Spook's daughter, but she's awkwardly introduced to the narrative. Only one scene, in which she enters the men's lair, works dramatically -- and then in the second act she disappears entirely. Beth's presence in the play opens up Lions to the world outside of the 10th Ward Club. Melocchi is on firm footing inside the bar's wood paneling, it's when the story has to leave the club and head home that Lions starts to stumble.

The playwright clearly sees Spook as 21st century, information-age Willy Loman. The problem is that Melocchi doesn't dramatize Spook's fall from middle class respectability. We get glimpses of his previous life and a career he passed up along the way, but these are never reconciled with the man we see on stage, who at the end of two-and-a-half hours is in much the same place as when the play began -- not just economically, but also emotionally.

Restructuring is a word we hear a lot of these days in regard to Detroit. I don't know if it can help the Big Three, but some tough restructuring could give a Vince Melocchi's new play a chance to really roar.

Lions runs through May 3 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image of Matt McKenzie and Valerie Dillman in Lions. Photo: William Still

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