Tough love

The shadow of marital infidelity falls dark and heavy over the theater, perhaps because that subject is particularly suited to the claustrophobic confines of the stage. Audiences can sit close to actors who piece together the tortured mosaic of betrayal and be forced to question their own boundaries of love.

Playwrights from Shakespeare (Othello) to Harold Pinter (Betrayal) to Tom Stoppard (The Real Thing) have explored the consequences of infidelity, real or imagined, and compelled ticketbuyers across the world to confront one of the cruelest realities of adulthood--that the person you love and in whom you trust may be driven, for reasons beyond your understanding, to deceive you for the sake of amorous adventure.

Add to that list playwright Alexandra Gersten, a veteran stage actress of New York and other national productions whose first play was commissioned a scant two years ago by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater (a breeding ground for talents like John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, and other character luminaries), and graduated just this past season to Broadway starring the aforementioned Metcalf. For a first play, My Thing of Love is remarkably mature, rich in idiosyncratic dialogue, but at the same time less a legitimate evening's worth of theater than a long, earth-shaking belch of bitter exhaustion from a woman who seems to have examined her feelings so thoroughly she split into several personalities--in this case, The Jilted Wife, The Guilty Husband, and The Other Woman. Dallas' New Theatre Company offers a tight, intelligently performed production of a script that sometimes dazzles you with visceral knots of pain that can't be untied in two hours.

Gersten the playwright and Gersten the actress are clearly fast friends--My Thing of Love revels in language written to be performed by enthusiastic actors. The title itself refers to the strange, ambiguous quality that distinguishes all the relationships in this play. The characters approach each other with a slapdash sympathy that disintegrates as soon as someone speaks his mind. The alibis and excuses that follow are rushed, improvisational, imaginative, and terribly recognizable to anyone who's ever lied to cover an indiscretion.

Elly (Charlotte Akin) and Jack (Jim Jorgensen) are a married couple whose every slight misstep at the breakfast table is grounds for a fight. Married an unspecified number of years, with two young daughters to their name, Elly and Jack have clearly once been in love but can no longer locate the reason why that chemical reaction happened. Elly picks at her zits in the reflection of the coffee pot while Jack, sipping coffee in his underwear, rails against the quagmire that is their lives together. She is the discontented one, and as evidence of her suspicions produces a journal packed full of accounts of his secret liaisons with a lover. The gangly, bespectacled Jack is startled but finally compelled to apologize on his knees and assure her it won't ever happen again.

Problem is, said lover, a 26-year-old idealist named Kelly (Melissa de Leon), wants to have it out with Elly one morning after Jack's left for work. She doesn't quite know why she's there, except to confirm that both of them are a part of Jack's life and ponder, in front of wounded company, the ambiguities of her own affair with Jack. Compounding the problem is a guidance counselor named Mr. Garn (Bruce Coleman), a balding, bespectacled neurotic who has come to investigate certain "problems" that Jack and Elly's youngest daughter has experienced (for one, she won't stop screaming in school, and for another, she urinates in the ice cube trays whenever she gets angry).

My Thing Of Love begins inside a brightly lit kitchen and ends in a dim bedroom just a couple of hours after the last act of adultery has been committed. The emotional mileage that's traveled between those short spaces is considerable, but Gersten doesn't really connect all the dots. Instead, she relies on audience identification with the dilemma as well as actors talented enough to express the naked emotions that make the treachery palpable. With artistic director Bruce Coleman's direction of four very expressive performers (including himself), Gersten's play is in good hands. Indeed, it's a tribute to Coleman and the rest of the cast that Gersten's stream-of-consciousness exorcism of the emotions comes across as cohesive and disciplined as it does here.

The relationship between Jack and Elly is the most important one in the play, since all action springs from their frustrated, increasingly antagonistic conversations. Jim Jorgensen and Charlotte Akin make an intriguing married couple both comically and visually--Jorgensen is tall, balding, skinny, with a razor-shaped beak of a nose, while Akin is softer, flannel-clad, with a curly head of hair that constantly threatens to descend into her broad, intense face yet is held at bay seemingly by force of will. And yet their physical characteristics offer an interesting contrast to their characters' personalities. Jack may be the unfaithful one, but Elly is clearly the stronger of the two, and he knows it. Jorgensen's height and sharp-cut features accentuate the business-like, perfunctory attitude Jack brings to affairs of the heart, but the actor really allows that soft middle to come through in moments when Elly's anger becomes overwhelming.

The role of neurotic, paranoid Elly is one with which an actress could really chew the furniture, but Akin keeps her rage just below the surface and opts for a kind of weary bitterness that can turn threatening in an instant, like when she catches Jack in bed with his lover. Sitting beside the mattress in a huge chair, eating dry breakfast cereal out of the box, she casually informs both flustered sinners, "I might have a gun, you know." That threat carries more dramatic weight than a real gun-waving standoff would.

As the busty, black-clad Kelly, Melissa de Leon suggests the intelligent side of ditziness. The actress possesses a rare ability--to find the sympathetic side of a basically unsympathetic character and bring it to the foreground. The wandering, free-associative riffs that her dialogue consists of suggest an individual who's less air-headed than self-involved, and de Leon's graceful diction and fluid stage movements milk every ounce of charming obliviousness from her words.

My Thing of Love is a script that will rise or fall with the level of rapport among the cast, and New Theatre Company delivers the goods in a production for which the hard-won laughs rise from an undercurrent of profound sadness. Gersten's turbo-charged dialogue nicely explores the mysterious pain of love, but is smart enough not to try to define it.

My Thing of Love runs through December 16 at the Swiss Avenue Theater. Call 520-

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Jimmy Fowler

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