Language Arts 

Playhouse West's foul-mouthed String Fever is charmingly kooky.

A couple of years ago, Playhouse West director Lois Grandi took a big chance and staged a play -- Only Kidding! -- that was full of what is euphemistically known as "language." Although the playwright was willing to clean it up for her, a read-through of the bowdlerized text revealed that it just didn't work, and Grandi put up a sign in the lobby of the old Locust Street theater warning audiences that her characters had foul mouths.

And, much to her surprise, nothing bad happened. Which may have something to do with the way her programming has opened up since then, culminating in the sweet, funny, String Fever, where an angelic forty-year-old woman and the people in her life talk openly about sex and shit. Gleefully, in the second case; the perpetrator is the protagonist's father, talking about the travails of colostomies. But it's all appropriate in context, and there's much more than bodily functions to Jacquelyn Reingold's wry look at a woman hitting forty and the wall at pretty much the same time. Lily wants a baby, a mate, and professional satisfaction, and it's looking precarious on all three fronts.

How she sets out to juggle her desires -- and the shaky mental or physical health of pretty much everyone around her -- sort of takes place in Lily's head, and sort of doesn't. We see things she couldn't possibly see, like her ex-boyfriend visiting her father in the hospital, but the action also moves in a dream-logic sort of way, where it makes perfect sense that a high school music teacher can pop out to Iceland for a visit whenever she likes, and a high-end drug rehab center encourages patients to carry lawn chairs around with them everywhere they go. The set is very simple -- the single most expensive things onstage are probably some hunks of dry ice -- and most of the characters are onstage all the time, which keeps things moving along at a good clip.

And what characters they are. The two funniest, hands down, are Lily's lovably foul-mouthed father Artie (Stu Klitsner in a take-no-prisoners performance), and her friend Gisli (Eric Frashier Hayes, ditto), who regularly sends her videotaped letters where he describes his exploits as "Iceland's biggest star." And then there's her pal Janey (Maggie Grant), who warns her: "Don't fall in love with a Midwesterner; you wouldn't believe how they dress around here." Lily's ex-boyfriend Matthew (Seth Margolies) is actually one of the least interesting things going on by comparison, and it's a little hard to see why Lily is so hung up on him. New potential boyfriend Frank -- the physicist who gets Lily hung up on trying to figure out her life according to string theory -- is also awkward; the stiff way Adam Slusser plays the role provides almost too much foreshadowing of the challenge Frank and Lily will face.

It's also nice to see a woman who is just a little bit older than the usual run of such heroines trying to figure things out. Heather Mathieson, who played so angry and hard in 2002's Sight Unseen, is completely different here; winsome, wise, and loving. Hers is not a cynical, battle-of-the-sexes struggle, but a thoughtful and open contemplation of the vagaries of love -- and physics. Television and popular literature are full of women in their thirties trying to solve the family-plus-life equation, and often there is a bitter flavor. What makes this example so charming and different is its kookiness, and an innocence belied by the "language."


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