Laughing at death

Theatre Three carries the humor on a long road through Mamet, May, and Allen

The problem with the one-act, that most bladder-friendly of theatrical forms, is how to present what is essentially a live-action joke and make it look like something more than a joke. Even with the darkest of material--as in, say, Erik Ehn's Red Plays--the denouement is still a punch line, indeed far punchier and more nakedly so than what you get inside some epic sweep like The Kentucky Cycle. The unraveling and resolution of the crisis in that long, populous piece is an exhalation of many breaths, the audience members' among them. Watching a one-act, you are alone with very few characters and frequently just a single conflict, so close to the tight curve of this little arc that you can practically feel the actors' breath on your face. It's the playwright's Herculean trial to make sure that this intimacy is earned by the material.

The difficulty of capturing profundity--or, at least, avoiding the outright superficial--with brevity rapping the dramatist's knuckles like a crazed nun is illustrated in Death Defying Acts, a trio of short plays given its Southwest premiere by Theatre Three. Elaine May, author of the center piece and a confirmed master of the farcical situation ever since she and fellow sketch artist Mike Nichols stormed New York's John Golden Theatre in 1960, brought her good friends David Mamet and Woody Allen together to form this triumvirate of comedies about mortality and the way it heightens regret, disappointment, and betrayal. Death Defying Acts didn't enjoy a very long New York run, possibly owing to the fact that that city's theatergoers can be choosy about their Mamet and May selections. None of these one-acts features the dramatist at the height of his or her powers--and, in one case, there's an awful lot of wheel-spinning with an old hand at the controls--but there are enough pleasures scattered throughout these winding, well-trodden garden paths to warrant your attention. Given that the production lasts three hours with a 15- minute intermission, your feet (or, speaking unmetaphorically, your bottom) will feel the journey.

Much of the evening's enjoyment can be derived from watching Theatre Three veterans Sharon Bunn and Thurman Moss go to town with their showy roles. Having been involved with Theatre Three since the '70s, they both give what you might call star-vehicle performances--pleasurable because the roles they carry are high-sheen, flattering, so-familiar-they're-relaxing kinds of roles. Neither brow betrays a drop of sweat in the function of some occasionally frenetic farce.

Moss stars in the first show, David Mamet's The Interview, in which he plays what has come to be considered an anomaly in a world full of defense attorney-as-media spokesperson: a nervous lawyer. He sits at one end of a long table in low lights, directly opposite a stubborn, caustic, impatient interviewer (Ambre Low) with an upswept, Terry Gilliamesque hairdo. The lawyer explains in elaborate legalese an event involving a lawn mower that the interviewer keeps calling him on. As directed by Kerry Cole, who helmed New Theatre Company's hit production of Psychopathia Sexualis, this slight but effective Mamet piece has a sinister, slinkier rhythm to it than did John Patrick Shanley's pre-marital comedy. Moss is terrific, growing more desperate with his circumlocution in the presence of her unmoved stare. The Interview amounts to a 45-minute lawyer joke in duet, so unconcerned is the playwright with anything but one sweeping career slander. Yet he stabs with a surgeon's precision, and it occurs to you while the following one-acts loiter here and there that May and Allen might have used some Mametian streamlining.

Thurman Moss becomes director for Elaine May's Hotline, which possesses more soul even when it loiters because the two central characters here often convey their sadness in the quieter moments. Sharon Bunn gives the best of her two performances as an actress who's decided to kill herself, but will give life one more shot if the folks at the Manhattan Suicide Center can supply a good reason for her to. She's less melodramatic than wearily fermenting. In a nihilistic mood of regal pissiness, she berates telephone operators and suicide "counselors" alike. In explaining why she called one operator "an asshole Puerto Rican," she defends herself to another: "I didn't say the operator was an asshole because he was a Puerto Rican, I said he was an asshole and a Puerto Rican. As in, you're an asshole and you're not Puerto Rican. Get it?"

Bunn encounters an earnest, fragile first-time phone "counselor" (Terry Dobson) who, unfortunately, has previously experienced a success. He's now ready to save the world, which might not be as difficult a project as saving this bitterly angry caller who, we learn, has pretty much already decided to overdose. She castigates him anyway, and triggers a desperate phone-bank campaign by the distraught counselor to get her back on the line.

Playing the obsessed Samaritan, Terry Dobson doesn't quite overcome the strange achievement he's earned with this critic--the ability to seem woefully miscast in every role I've seen him perform. An equity actor, as well as Theatre Three's musical director and the conductor-arranger for Turtle Creek Chorale's Encore! ensemble, the presence of Dobson on stage has always struck me as a kind of familial concession--he's an 18-year member of the oft-embattled T3 clan. Still, Hotline found me laughing harder at his spastic dilemmas and wondering less why he wasn't spending more time in musical direction.

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