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Family Affairs

Off-Broadway, on the Beach, and at the Center

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Mac Wellman has been an Off-Broadway mainstay for 20 years, producing a steady stream of poetic plays that joyously joust with language, impishly flirt with American mass culture, and triumphantly elude all meaning. Description Beggared, currently running in the cozy Black Box studio theater in the catacombs of Children's Theatre, is wedded to songs composed by longtime musical accomplice Michael Roth.Or it was until the young banshees of the Farm Theatre Company got hold of it.

Director Anthony Cerrato has discarded the original score for "purveyors of transcendental music and bad jazz" and replaced it with new music by Jon Phillips, who directs an onstage trio, and Jason Loughlin. Loaf fanatics will recall that Loughlin was our Best College/Teen Actor for 2001. He's taken up piano over the past couple of years, which turns out to be quite sufficient for remarrying Wellman's lyrics to songs delivered by a cast that is only collectively over 25.

Cerrato simplifies some of the willful obfuscation in Wellman's script. That's particularly welcome at the beginning when the playwright would prefer to have four of the five members of the Outermost Ring Family speaking at once. Better still, Cerrato collaborates with Kim Ashton on a wonderfully surreal set design that continuously reminds us of Wellman's subtitle, The Allegory of WHITENESS.

We're in a vast, metaphysical Rhode Island -- geographical short jokes pop up occasionally -- at the beginning of the current century that is dressed up (and teched down) to look like the beginning of the last century. It is Founder's Day, and the Rings have assembled for a family portrait. But instead of playing up the photographic elements of the script -- the enormous silver-plate camera and the photographer, for starters -- Cerrato either plays them down or discards them.

Audiences will likely forget the occasion that brings all these eccentrics together and eventually lose the eerie sense that we're watching a quaint black-and-white photograph coming fitfully to life. Thus a musical that is only tenuously tethered to reality -- or allegory -- transforms into an even more free-floating evening.

Thankfully, we have a quartet of brilliant young performers to float along with. Matt Cosper, our Best College/Teen Actor five years ago as Agamemnon, has no problem with the cantankerous family patriarch Fraser Outermost Ring. Grimly supported by a cane, Cosper takes the bad music of Act 1 and the inquisition he's subjected to in Act 2 with a crusty misanthropy worthy of Scrooge.

Tara MacMullen, decades younger than she should be as the matriarchal Moth, delivers the long monologue that finally completes what Fraser told the White Zebra as his penance -- in a queenly style that heightens the comical climax. Cody Harding takes us closer to the blinding meaninglessness of it all in her final monologue as Louisa, and Sydney Andrews, bedecked with white six-shooters on both hips as Cousin Julia, is the most vivid expression of the weirdness of it all. Caryn Crye is overly bland as Aunt Bianca, but she's probably closer to the playwright's intent than Ben Horner's abrasive take on the White Dwarf. Guess he's supposed to counterbalance the Farm's unscary White Zebra. Think low-end carnival prize.

If you tingle with delight and self-satisfaction when you catch evanescent or oblique references to Moby Dick, Wagner's Ring, an extinct automaker, Shakespeare's The Tempest and White Out, then the long-delayed arrival of Mac Wellman and his impish bag of tricks are causes for jubilation. What Fraser ultimately tells the White Zebra pales in comparison with the twisted yearnings and animus that Captain Ahab brought to his encounter with the Great White Whale. Along with the pronouncement that photography can take a person entirely out of his body forever, that may be all of Wellman's point. But with Cerrato's visionary production concept and some highly precocious acting, this Wellman is well done.

There's good news up north. Davidson Community Players is presenting Neil Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs with a finely detailed set from Sandra Gray and evocative lighting from John Hartness. More importantly, there's an outstanding performance in the lead by the diminutive Anthony Napoletano as 14-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome.Now the bad news. Audiences at Hodson Hall have little reason to stand and cheer before Napoletano takes the final bow. His supporting players are nearly down to the usual DCP standard, adequate at best and delaying Napoletano's ovation until 10:40.

But it happened last Saturday night with a thrilling whoosh as the entire house rose to its feet at once. Deservedly so.

It was all so hush-hush and chi-chi when the invited audience was finally led upstairs from Cutters Cigar Lounge to Presidential Suite #1927 at the Marriott City Center for last Friday's 10pm showing of The Hotel Project. Two one-acts commissioned for the project were sandwiched around a 15-minute palate cleansing with complimentary cocktails.My palate actually needed more cleansing after the second course, Sharr White's Six Years. We traveled back to the aftermath of World War II, when returning GIs who had seen the most had the most difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Vaguely evoking Monty Clift in his undershirt, Brian Lafontaine was the ultra-alienated Phil. While it produced mutterings that were often inaudible from more than two yards away, Lafontaine's immersion in Phil's shell-shocked catatonia was downright creepy. Yes, an extra level of authenticity is layered on when a drama is written specifically for the space where it's performed.

But Pharr's Six Years is also authentically repetitive, and Phil's weepy Penelope of a wife only plunges us deeper into maudlin suffering. By the time we're through, Beth Pierce as Meredith was absorbing tears, dribble and drool from every orifice of her wandering husband's face -- and making sobbing deposits of her own into the couple's joint spillage. Still after six years of war-torn separation, nothing was solidly settled. Not even a one-night stand.

Our first course, The Businessman and the Cheerleader by Stan Peal, was far more palatable. So were Lafontaine and Pierce in the title roles of this contemporary comedy. Lafontaine's lightly starchy bizman was perfectly calibrated to the intimate space, and his unexpected explosion detonated a brilliant series of twists and surprises.

Pierce was in a wonderfully goofy bubble-gum mode as the cheerleader who mistakenly wanders into the businessman's hotel room. Her high-energy comedy was limited only by the low ceiling of the Presidential Suite as she performed cheers, plunged for splits, and flashed a silk-pantied bottom. Anne Lambert directed with inspired lasciviousness, ranging through the suite resourcefully. The bawdy romp wrapped up with one of the kinkiest exits I've seen in years -- into the lavatory.

Great concept. Great fun.

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