Dueling Nightmares 

Act Now! pairs two short plays that are more related than they may have intended.

Walnut Creek's Act Now! has a neat trick for keeping audiences and actors engaged: Do up a couple of one-acts. If the crowd doesn't care for the first one, well, the second will be different. Sometimes it works really well. Last year's combination of The Real Inspector Hound and Sexual Perversity in Chicago was a goodie.

This year's offerings for those with short attention spans, Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and the premiere of Joel Roster's Prisoners of Love, are a bit of a slog.

You know the nightmare, the one where you're walking into a classroom to take a final exam in a class you haven't shown up for all semester? An exam that's being administered in a language you don't speak? For actor and playwright Durang, the equivalent is showing up to watch a play you didn't realize you were supposed to be in.

That's the whole point of The Actor's Nightmare, an in-joke one-act that still manages to be pretty funny. George Spelvin wanders into what might be a Coward piece, or Beckett, or possibly Hamlet — nobody can agree which it is, and everyone seems to think George is someone else altogether. Gamely he changes into a costume and tries to play along, but it's an unmitigated disaster from end to end. There's some kind of stinky muck in the trashcans for the Beckett section, the stage manager can give George only so many of his lines (which she does by coming onstage dressed as a maid), and the executioner's prop ax looks awfully real.

As the play opens, Ryan Terry plays George with so much stiffness it's hard to tell whether his puppetlike motion is a character choice or a real limitation. He has a voice like smoked honey, though, and starts to shine in the moments when George is alone onstage, making up any old thing to try to keep the play in motion. These soliloquies are a hoot, ranging as they do from honest Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams and the character's meandering explanation of why he didn't end up entering the monastery. And Terry gets George's distress well; the poor man is so hapless.

The moments where there are more people onstage are spotty. Some of the actors are playing for laughs (Beth Chastain), but others as though they honestly believe in their characters (Dean Creighton, especially good as Horatio). The experience would be a little smoother if there were agreement about what they were attempting. But this is Durang, after all. He's hard to screw up, and the pacing and energy of the show are good.

Meanwhile, a new playwright's nightmare is getting his or her work noticed, a challenge Contra Costa Times theater critic Pat Craig takes seriously enough to have initiated a local playwriting competition. Last year's winner, Joel Roster's Prisoners of Love, got a staged reading at the Willows. Now the story of seven people struggling to stay connected to their loved ones has a full production.

Midge and Frank are having problems. Joseph is going nuts staying with his aunt and grandmother. Hal is clinging to Lisa. What begins as a clutch of isolated yet believable stories evolves into a larger story about the trials families face, but ends all too predictably in heartwarming resolution. Some of the writing sings, and some of it is just clumsy and unclear. Larding a play with four-letter words doesn't make it edgy, Mamet notwithstanding; in the world of the story, there's nothing — addiction, infidelity, being a stalker — that can't be fixed with bromides about love and/or family.

Roster's women are written much more believably than his men, and director Lynne Elizondo's women are generally stronger, too. Emily Garcia's Lisa is one of the bright spots, and Roster has given her a very distinctive speaking style that relies on repetition: "You will make a girl very happy someday, and I will never never never never never be that girl." When Ann Kendrick really gets her dander up as the grandmother, she's a lot of fun. Sally Hogarty is the most powerful stage presence as Midge, who doesn't understand why her husband Frank is leaving her.

What honestly doesn't make sense is why Midge cares. Roster has written Frank as so cold and uncommunicative that it's hard to see why Midge wants to hold on to him. It doesn't help that Wayne McRice's timing as Frank is consistently a beat or two off, and he occasionally looks as if he, too, stumbled into a play he has no memory of rehearsing.

This is one of those kitchen-sink plays to which new playwrights are so prone. Roster has tried to get a lot of story into a little space: divorce, rehab, fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, aging parents. And overlapping soliloquies opening and closing the play. And odd silhouette cutouts that mark where each man begins the play, which the stagehands then whisk away, never to be seen again. Do they suggest that most men are just black holes in a relationship? It's a touch that feels as if it should mean something, but there's no follow-through. While there's a lot of wit, Prisoners of Love could probably have spent a few more minutes in the rinse cycle to knock off the sudsier bits.

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