Prime Productions has joined the Twin Cities theater game with a specific mission: to provide substantial roles for women. While similar to other companies — most notably Theatre Unbound — this new troupe promotes actors “of a certain age.”

Well and done. Yet, certainly there are better vessels to launch this adventure than “Little Wars,” a leaky, pretentious play that opened under Shelli Place’s direction Saturday night at Mixed Blood.

Playwright Steven Carl McCasland has imagined a salon of famous writers having drinks in France while Nazis threaten Western civilization. His script lurches between monologues and crabby confrontations and finds itself cribbing from Lillian Hellman’s famous tale “Julia.” Psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner accused Hellman of appropriating her story as the basis for “Julia,” even though the two had not met. McCasland’s fiction imagines they did meet in the French hideaway of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1940.

Gardiner arrives at the home, where Stein and Toklas give her money to help Jews escape Europe. She is persuaded to stay but they conceal her purpose (otherwise we wouldn’t have a play, right?) when Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie drop by.

Place struggles to animate a talky, static drama that often feels like dusty community theater. Meagan Kedrowski’s raffish set design catches our eye with its awkward angles and homemade artwork, but where is the urgency — the pulse — in this evening?

The mien of these women shifts between self-absorption and self-loathing as each in turn steps up to deliver an “important revelation.”

Candace Barrett Birk’s Gertrude makes out best — an indomitable, sardonic bully who dishes bluntly on her guests. Birk’s portrayal has an imperious confidence. Gertrude particularly skewers Hellman, a sharp-tongued tough who gives as good as she gets in Vanessa Gamble’s interpretation.

Alison Edwards contents herself with Christie — inquisitive, proper and contained, a bit brittle and dryly British.

McCasland makes life tough for Laura B. Adams as Gardiner. On one occasion, out of the blue, Gardiner turns on Christie and asks accusingly, “What do you think of the Jews, Miss Christie?” How do you make that seem natural?

Miriam Schwartz fares better as Stein and Toklas’ servant, who is the emotional heart of the play. Schwartz consumes the role beautifully with understated dignity.

Sue Scott and Elizabeth Desotelle lean on gesture and mug takes as Toklas and Parker, respectively. Too much acting.

Better luck next time?

 

Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at roycegraydon@gmail.com.