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Stage Capsules 

Presto Pronto and Cat's Paw, Doing Durang, The House of Mirth

Presto Pronto and Cat's Paw
The most intriguing part of this year's Absurdist Series at the Exit is the number of new absurdist plays being commissioned or otherwise encouraged. Four tiny ones by Ken Prestininzi make up Presto Pronto, and the first two are actually funny. "Reading in Bed" is a weird triangle of resentment and jealousy over a book called Power Without Pain, which an arrogant-looking man reads both in and out of bed. As long as nobody talks, the piece is amusing, but when the characters start to mouth non sequiturs, it grows tendentious. Marcie Henderson and David Cramer are especially good as an irritated woman and the arrogant man. But "The Bath" is the show's centerpiece. It's about a straight-laced guy in tie and suspenders named Friedrich (Chris Kuckenbaker) who doesn't want to be bathed naked by a washerwoman. When the washerwoman (Janna Sobel) manages to strip and sponge him, he dies of fright. Kuckenbaker and Sobel are perfect in their roles, and Paul Santiago, who also gets naked, does loud supporting work. But Prestininzi's other two pieces are either forgettable ("Begin. Or?"), or merely clever ("Nora's Exit").

You'd think Mac Wellman's chosen territory of American suburban ordinariness would be rich soil for absurdism, but his newish play Cat's Paw makes it boring. Still, Wellman's strongest talent seems to be writing schoolgirl-devil characters, and the one in this show is at least handled with funny brattiness by Ginger Eckert.

Both shows through April 12 at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Admission is $8-10; call 673-3847.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Doing Durang
Free Range Theater reworks a show of one-acts by Christopher Durang (previously produced as Durang Durang), expunging certain pieces and adding others from among the many Durang has written. Surprisingly, director Richard Frederick and company fail utterly with "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," a usually very funny spoof of The Glass Menagerie; some wrongheaded costuming (by Jennifer Welch) and slow pacing doom the piece. In addition, Terry Amara Boero as Amanda uses the same tone whether she's being sarcastic or not, quashing the humor. Boero is somewhat more successful in the opener, "Mrs. Sorken," wherein the title character explains theater to us. Steve Marvel amuses in the sadistic "Gym Teacher," instructing his charges to play dodge ball with medicine balls and worse. Two other short pieces, "Woman Stand-Up" and "An Alter Boy Talks to God," are just sketches without narrative drive. "Medea," which Durang co-wrote with Wendy Wasserstein, is very funny (Shannon McGrann in particular shines here), but it isn't until Durang's hilarious sendup of Sam Shepard, "A Stye in the Eye," that the cast fully loosens up and provides the all-out lunacy we expect from a Durang production. The terrific Neil Howard as Jake/ Frankie ("twin aspects of the same personality" or two separate people? Only the Symbolists know for sure) converses insanely with himself, wrestles passionately with his sister, and generally has a ball, all with incredible skill and ease, inspiring the rest of the cast to follow suit. (Marvel walks around in blood-spattered jockey shorts, describing the maggot-infested lamb that he's just deposited in the kitchen.) Would that the other scenes were of this quality. James S. Anderson provides the funny, funky set.

Through April 29 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter(at Powell), S.F. Admission is $18-20; call 386-5890.

-- Joe Mader

The House of Mirth
ACT's adaptation of Edith Wharton's great novel (by playwright and director Giles Havergal) mistakenly restages Lily Bart's tragic demise so illness, rather than a drug overdose, seems to be the cause of her death. And Bertha Dorset's horrifyingly unjust snub of Lily no longer stands out, merging instead with everyone else's condemnations. Compression and telescoping are of course necessary in literary adaptation, but these revisions radically reshape the story's import. There are other minor quibbles -- meaningful, "dramatic" looks between Lily and Selden during scene changes; Gerty Farish's judgmental eulogy over the Pietà of Lily and Selden -- but otherwise Havergal successfully evokes the many scenes of New York on the single set, employing the supporting cast as a chorus to recite necessary passages of Wharton's narration. In fact, most of his transgressions could be forgiven, if only we had a Lily Bart with whom we could fall in love. Roxanne Raja toils away in the difficult role, but the audience needs to see the ease with which Lily comports herself, not just the effort behind it. (When demonstrating "charm," Raja is sometimes reminiscent of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine Benes.) As Selden, J. Paul Boehmer has some of the same problems. A sense of grace, no matter how studied, is essential for both characters, and it's lacking here. Luckily, several other cast members are spectacular, especially Lorri Holt as Gerty, who conveys brilliantly the scene in which her romantic hopes in Selden are dashed. This is the best piece of adaptation in the play, and it's all Holt. As Judy Trenor, Dominique Lozano is natural, engaging, and elegant, and as Mrs. Peniston, she gives the exclamation "Pays her bills!" with the proper comic outrage. And Troy West beautifully steers the role of Rosedale from crassness to sympathy. Holt, Lozano, and West are completely in Wharton's world, even when the play isn't.

Through April 23 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $11-55; call 749-2228.

-- Joe Mader


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