Naughty, naughty

Watching the latest production by Theatre Three, a pair of one-acts from reigning theatrical neurotic Christopher Durang aptly dubbed Disgraceful Acts, the viewer is intrigued. In one evening, Dallas' 35-year-old theater company offers the simultaneous experience of watching a skillful satirist at his prime and said writer floundering for inspiration atop a horse that not only died long ago, but has since been stuffed and displayed as a quaint period piece.

The two short plays being performed are For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, Durang's 1995 spoof of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, staged last year by the Manhattan Theatre Club (patron company of the great god Terrence McNally); and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, a 1982 raspberry aimed directly at the Catholic Church's longstanding love affair with hairsplitting dogma. These short plays were written 13 years apart, yet share a certain kitchen-sink ballsiness that distinguishes Durang's entire output:They render utterly ridiculous two gigantic cultural institutions by revealing the grotesque excesses these monuments have inspired.

In the case of For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, Durang has finally expelled a belch that's been brewing in his tummy for a long time. He professes great love for the works of Tennessee Williams, as many of us do. The reasons for our ardor are easy enough to explain: Williams is an indispensable player in the development of 20th-century American theater, a man who, with a fusion of sexual frankness and a sentimental variation on "magic realism" that preceded Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rescued the stage from the dreary socialist soapbox it had become. He was gut-wrenching and frivolous, lightheaded and firm-footed all at the same time.

He is, in short, an icon who deserves a thorough ribbing by some resourceful wag. The trouble is, Durang doesn't seem to realize Williams has been roasted on numerous occasions by comedy writers working in every medium you can name. Like the middle child who's a bit too eager to please, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls works hard using material we've seen too many times before. The play's freshness seal is its cheeky gay sensibility, which, considering that Williams was out of the closet way before being out of the closet was cool, doesn't feel like much of a coup.

Indeed, what Durang has done is basically raise Williams' sexuality from subtextual tension to textual farce: The Glass Menagerie's Laura has become Southern Belle's Lawrence (Terry Dobson), a big whiny shut-in who suffers from asthma and eczema and collects glass swizzle sticks. Brother Tom (Tom Lenaghen) still sneaks off to the movies, but here they have titles like Hunky Busboys. He's forever being pestered by his mother, Amanda (Sharon Bunn), to bring home a "female caller" from the factory where he works, although in this case it's not to fulfill her faded Southern fantasies about true love but just to get the blubbering Lawrence off her hands. The coworker who finally arrives is a strapping gal named Ginny (Yolonda Williams) who, unfortunately, already has a girlfriend...and she's got the woman's name tattooed on her shoulder to prove it.

As directed by Thurman Moss, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls scurries across the stage at a Marx Brothers pace, pausing here and there for bits of well-timed if spurious physical slapstick. It's difficult to tell whether this play's extremely modest comic assets are served by such an amphetamine treatment. The 1995 Christopher Durang seems to have wilted a bit under the glare of his own reputation, which was established by savage absurdist relationship comedies such as Beyond Therapy and The Marriage of Bette and Boo. The eccentrics of The Glass Menagerie would seem to be a logical choice for a man who revels in the comic possibilities of alienation without ignoring the cruel side of that state. Perhaps out of too much respect for the source material, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls brandishes a blunt instrument at its targets. Durang plays clever practical jokes by garbling bits of the play's original dialogue to make it naughtier ("Was it a trick of memory?" Tom wonders, "or was it the memory of a trick?"), but that ultimately feels like the sum total of his accomplishment--a series of amusing verbal diversions that doesn't mount an effective overall attack on the war-horse in its sights.

It's a measure of our own fundamentalist-dominated era and Durang's sure aim as a younger playwright that Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You still wields the ability to shock and challenge. When first produced off-Broadway, the scathing one-act was made an example by the perpetually offended John Cardinal O'Connor and a few opportunistic politicians who needed to show a public display of chivalry.

And yet, for once, the perennial moral watch guards seemed to be protecting themselves from a truly lethal assault. Devout Catholics, beware: Durang, who attended Catholic school, unloads a 900-pound weight from his chest with Sister Mary, which ridicules the complex rules in which the Roman Catholic Church has shrouded Christianity. The virgin birth vs. the Immaculate Conception, venial sins and mortal sins, the changing authenticity of various saints--Sister Mary (Sharon Bunn) has a burr in her habit about all these oft-confused arcane issues, and delivers her sermon directly to the audience with the tender impatience of one who knows the answers but can't convince the poor dolts around her to listen.

She grows quite a bit testier, however, when a group of former students (Tom Lenaghen, Melanie Stroh, Yolonda Williams, and Terry Dobson) return to confess that their adult lives have rendered them less than ideal Catholic role models. Abortions, children out of wedlock, homosexuality--the usually unflappable Sister Mary resorts to some drastic solutions to erase these sins of her former charges.

Dallas audiences will be familiar with Sharon Bunn, a local musical-comedy veteran who plays both Sister Mary Ignatius and Amanda in Southern Belle. As an actress, Bunn is a gift to any satirist because she doesn't step outside the play to elicit audience laughter. Her timing is based on a thoroughly harmonious reading of the author's intentions, which, when the material is incisive, makes her performance all the more memorable. She rides the loony bumper-cars of Southern Belle without once attempting to redirect the course of the play. A heavier hand, while it might have been welcome here and there, would ultimately drag that trifle on longer than it (and the audience) deserved.

She plays a more decisive role in the action of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, which is pretty much a one-woman show with a chorus of tragic dissenters, and comes up with a doozie. Sister Mary is a monster, not because she delights in sheer meanness, but because she refuses to see anyone (including herself) as anything but a puppet attached by strings to the Vatican. It's not the devil who's in the details here, but God's own despotic spokeswoman on earth. Bunn works that anointed mission with sly, subtle dedication. She's delightful, and just a little bit scary.

Disgraceful Acts runs through August 4. Call 871-2933.

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Jimmy Fowler