The Lesher of Two Comedies 

Stoppard and Mamet make an odd pairing, which is either the point or beside it.

First of all, don't look for any connection between the two one-act plays Act Now! is currently staging together at the Dean Lesher Center. As the managing director notes when he steps out to greet the audience before the show begins, the only thing they have in common is that each has a four-word title. That's not strictly accurate -- they're both comedies by modern masters, for example -- but it's true enough.

The first, Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, is more than thirty years old, but barely shows its age. A little easier to follow than his wittily breakneck longer works, Hound still has all his favorite things -- clever wordplay, pastichey references to other people's works, and a play-within-a-play structure with very porous borders between the two. Hound is the story of two theater critics sitting through a tediously overacted little thriller that bears more than a passing resemblance to Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. It's so tedious that the two are carrying on an elaborate conversation throughout, although they're not really listening to each other: The pompous Birdboot (Rich Aiello) is too busy insisting that he isn't actually banging young actresses in exchange for good reviews ("I am devoted to my homely but good-natured Myrtle!"), and the seething Moon is complaining about how much he hates being the second-string critic to the absent Higgs ("Stand-ins of the world, stand up!")

Meanwhile, onstage, the housekeeper of lonely and isolated Muldoon Manor flounces about providing all of the exposition, and then some. June McCue McKay is very funny as Mrs. Drudge, who answers the phone with the stage directions ("The drawing room of the Muldoon Manor, late afternoon, to whom did you wish to speak?") and dramatically leads with her right hand every time she leaves the stage. Every time. One by one, the others show up -- Cynthia, the slinky lady of the manor; her secret lover, the caddish Simon; his newly abandoned playmate Felicity; and the salty wheelchair-bound Magnus, whose fake beards get sillier as the play progresses.

So "onstage" a predictable story unfolds -- or at least it tries to, until the phone rings and Birdboot decides to answer it. Which is where things go from funny to insane, as Birdboot gets sucked into playing Simon, Moon tries to get him to return to his nice safe seat just off stage right, and the bumbling police inspector Hound shows up. Or does he?

This thing is full of terrible mixed metaphors, especially from Birdboot. "The skeleton in the closet is coming to roost," he says portentously at one point, and refers to himself later as "a fellow toiler in the vineyard of greasepaint." Moon's mania is a different kind of entertaining; he is clearly the sort of critic who has done too much reading, and spent too much time brooding on the injustice of standing in another man's shadow. Stephen Rexrode also has a great face for the role, all wild eyes and fervor.

You do eventually find out whodunit in this one, but by that time it doesn't really matter. The whole thing is so silly and snappily acted that the question seems secondary.

Going from Stoppard to Mamet is a big leap, one not every audience member might want to make -- particularly those who shy away from strong language and long, rambling discussions about sex. But that's the beauty of having two one-acts separated by an intermission: If you're not up for Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mamet's sendup of '70s mores, you can just split. But if you want to see four people wrestle with some very funny questions about intimacy and the relationships between men and women in the coarsely truthful language that made Mamet famous, you should stay.

Probably the funniest things in this one are also the harshest, and that boils down to two characters: the swaggering misogynist Bernie Litko, and the screeching man-hater Joan Webber. Played, respectively, by Bill Clemente and Sandra Weingart, these two are vividly awful, and very funny. Bernie is a man's man in the sleaziest sense of the word: The play opens with him telling his young friend Danny about having sex with a woman who insists on playing out a World War II fantasy, down to her wearing a flight suit and calling on a friend to make strafing noises. Not that he really seems to mind -- the two things he appears to like best are broads and whiskey.

So it stands to reason that Bernie will fail miserably with prickly Joan, whom he meets in a bar. In their one brief interaction -- where she says point-blank, to his complete shock, "Forgive me if I'm being too personal, but I don't find you sexually attractive" -- we learn everything we need to know about her. Maybe on some level she wants to like men, but mostly she's tired of them. She doesn't seem to think much of sex, either; encountering her as a kindergarten teacher, we see her catching two kids playing doctor, and probably screwing them up for life in the process as she alternately reassures them that there's nothing wrong with their bodies, and condemns them for doing a terrible thing. "Now we're going to go in the other room," she says sweetly, "AND WASH OUR HANDS, and then Miss Webber is going to CALL YOUR PARENTS."

Bernie and Joan are the extremes against which young, sweet Danny and Deborah play out a tentative love affair. Danny is played by Eddie Peabody, a dead ringer for Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner at that age. Peabody plays Eddie as an easygoing guy perhaps a little too susceptible to what other people think. Sarah Watson's Deborah has a nice twist of mean, near the end; until then, she's a mite bland. But like the three others, she totally has the look: whoever cast this play got it exactly right, visually, from Bernie's mustache to Joan's orange smock and Deborah's puffy blond hair. And the actors are perfect with their timing, which is everything with Mamet.

Taken together, Hound and Perversity are so different that they serve as both a good introduction to the wide spectrum of comic possibility inherent in live theater and a fun night out, as performed here by two lively casts. They don't make much sense one after another, but that's beside the point.

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