Performance anxiety

At this point, the chance of scoring a ticket to Don Juan in Chicago, the new show by Lean Theater in Theatre Three's Theatre Too basement space, is about as likely as finding an unwrinkled sheet on Don Juan's heart-shaped bed. Word of mouth has spread throughout Dallas theatergoing circles that this production is laugh-out-loud entertaining, so much so that Lean has been compelled to add performances to its usual Thursday-Saturday run.

Sure enough, at a sold-out Thursday-night performance, ticketbuyers were chortling till their ribs hurt at David Ives' rhyming, merrily profane version of the Don Juan myth, making you wonder whether all the noisy festivity bled into Theatre Three's Company upstairs (and made those audiences yearn for some genuine emotional engagement). Signature Lean Theater glitches remain for this latest outing -- namely, you never for a moment believe a couple of the key actors in their roles. But charm, energy, and crack comic timing can knock the objections right out of you. This show doesn't just flirt with you: It jumps in your lap and plants wet kisses all over your face. Be warned -- it also pauses to hump your leg along the way, but there's no need to feel embarrassed in front of company. They're being similarly accosted.

Even as veteran Dallas performer Thurman Moss seems to play himself, sometimes obtrusively, the more I see him onstage (he plays a very Mossy devil in this show), his ability as a director to coax relaxed comedy out of stage neophytes grows more impressive. Three newcomers -- Januari Mayberry, Ward Williams, and Jesse Castillo -- are dropped into the mix with some fairly seasoned talent, and not only hold their own in the amorous melee, but actually earn chuckles (Castillo) and contribute a drop of poignancy (Mayberry) from their own efforts.

Don Juan in Chicago also benefits from what appears to be a cash infusion: Set and costume designer Bruce Coleman bedecks Lean's typically gaunt appearance with a few extra pounds of luxury, notably with the smart, flattering duds on display here. I love poverty-stricken theater, but in the past, Lean has sometimes erred on the tacky side, as though self-conscious of its limited budget. The modest but attractive production design nicely complements the verbal extravagance in this show.

"If our happiness could be bottled," says one lover to another in Ancient History, a different David Ives play, "then the world would be littered with empties." The playwright's ability to set metaphors afire with beguiling absurdity has led some to dub him "Stoppard Light." This has as much to do with the fact that Ives secured his reputation through sketch comedy -- not to mention that he makes fewer overt philosophical allusions -- as with any disfavor earned honestly by comparison. Though a sensation only since 1994, when his sketch revue All in the Timing swept through New York, Ives tends to be more economical, less sententious in his insanity than Stoppard. Although sometimes dark in subject, his work indeed radiates happiness in a way few other stage writers do. You could buy an SUV with the money you'd earn recycling the empties his scripts leave behind.

Don Juan in Chicago epitomizes this. Ives takes the 17th-century Spanish libertine and customizes him to fit a longer comic arc, folding in the legend of Faust in the process. This Don (Marc Hebert) starts off as a bookish virgin who really is interested in women for their minds alone. His exasperated servant Leporello (Terry Vandivort) is constantly trying to get Don Juan hooked up, or at least laid, to take his mind off the occult studies that make life miserable around the castle (the play opens with a rain of reptiles). Don Juan summons Mephistopheles (Moss) and sells his and Leporello's soul for eternal life and infinite knowledge. But he didn't read the contract clause: He must bed a different woman every night. Leporello, for his part, must work overtime to procure insurance against eternal damnation for himself and his master.

Unfortunately, his first conquest is Dona Elvira (Nance Watkins), a woman who doesn't cotton to being jilted. Once discarded, she arranges a little meeting between herself and His Satanic Majesty, and sells her soul so that she may pursue Don Juan through the centuries in an attempt to trip him up. If he shtups the same woman twice, he's cast into eternal hellfire.

The dialogue in Don Juan in Chicago is so clever, so crackling, so very inventive that actors have to jog to keep up with it. Three of the performances here are trim and tone and ready for competition: Watkins as the determined Dona Elvira; Mary Lyons as Sandy (or is that Wendy?), a simmeringly angry woman in modern-day Chicago who wants to use Don Juan to take revenge on her creep of a boyfriend; and Terry Vandivort as the long-suffering, oft-ignored manservant and pimp Leporello. You get the sense that Vandivort, the old comic pro, is the beacon in this show everyone else is following to keep their footing sure. His presence makes every scene juicy and flavorful.

Marc Hebert remains a curious theatrical presence. He's a handsome fellow whose voice and diction are seemingly unpolished by stage lessons. What he lacks in vocal presence he more than compensates for with sheer affability and physical agility (the guy's a black belt in Tae Kwon Do), showcased to flattering effect in broad comedy when he plays clueless but good-natured protagonists sucked in by the undertow. That's precisely how the playwright has conceived Don Juan for this version. He eventually does revel in his tomcat high jinks, of course, but comes full circle and returns to the same insecure guy he started out as. Hebert is almost too scruffy and contemporary to make a convincing classical Don Juan, but there's nothing purist about this script. His charisma carries the role without strain.

By all means, make an attempt to catch Don Juan in Chicago in its last weekend -- the Lean Theater is piling in as many extra seats as fire laws will allow to meet the demand. If fate and schedules permit, they may even extend the run. The Don Juan in this ferociously funny evening chats your ear off even as he ravishes you. For a guy who's boasted for centuries now that he's all action, this bracing gush of witty talk is a most seductive addition to his romantic arsenal.