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The Credeaux Canvas explores various issues

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Within the past month, a new playwright's work has burst upon the local scene, presented by two small companies, Edge Theatre Company down in Rock Hill and, just this past weekend, the new Actor's Gallery Theatre Company at Story Slam. Together, the two dramas by Keith Bunin, The Busy World Is Hushed and The Credeaux Canvas, could credibly be hyped as two-thirds of a projected trilogy on religion, art, and politics.

Kinship between the two plays is unmistakable. Both center around three key characters, bookish dialogue is rampant, and suicides are pivotal in both denouements. Charlotte audiences, however, drew the better drama — and the better production. Busy World was a musty piece set in a minister's study, with a widowed minister hoping to pair up her new editor/ghostwriter with her wayward gay son.

In The Credeaux Canvas, a fourth character is added to the mix after intermission. Shut out of his father's will, Jamie gets the idea to use dad's connections as an art dealer — and his friends' talents — to make a fortune. His roommate Winston will fake a hitherto unknown painting by Jean-Paul Credeaux, the next new idol of the art world, and his girlfriend Amelia will model for it.

The targeted victim of this scam, Tess, is a rich collector who has fallen prey to fakes and forgeries in the past. She's as vain, starchy, and patrician as the plotters might have expected, but far more wary in the wake of past mistakes as a collector — and far more perspicacious as an art lover. So where Busy World was bereft of tension, the two guys attracted to one another without mom's scheming, Credeaux had a couple of plotlines to grip our attention.

At their first session, Winston combats Amelia's embarrassment over posing in the nude — or is it his own embarrassment? — by stripping off his own clothing as he sketches her. So the love triangle is no less paramount than the outcome of the scam and intertwined with it. Even in the final scene, long after Tess has departed, Bunin doesn't let go of her. When Winston expounds to Amelia upon the beauty and magic of the faked painting, he steals Tess' rapturous analysis word for word. Fakery layered on fakery.

Actor's Gallery will no doubt look for future projects that take us out of artists' studios and away from literal connections to the art world, but Credeaux is a fine foundation, clearly a breakout project for both co-founders, Chaz Pofahl and Greta Marie Zandstra. Recent years have seen the husband-and-wife team in Tarradiddle or Children's Theatre productions at ImaginOn, outdoor Shakespeare productions for Collaborative Arts on The Green, and in a lackluster Barefoot in the Park at CP back in July.

Amelia threatened to be the latest ditzy female in the long reliably silly parade that Zandstra has brought us. But in that crackling modeling scene — how often do we encounter heterosexual nude scenes onstage? — Zandstra, under Pofahl's nicely paced direction, revealed sudden depths. No less revelatory was Kirk Dickens as Winston, seemingly artless in his artifice and his richly ambiguous sexuality.

Jonavan Adams as Jamie evoked the enthusiastic superficiality of the hustler to perfection, yet he was as poignantly ripe for a fall as he was when he starred as Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog. And what a treat to see Joanna Gerdy, one of Charlotte's finest, sink her teeth into Tess, delivering a formidable combination of moneyed vanity and piercing intelligence.

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