Tattoo Girl, Cobalt Ensemble Theatre. Donald Barthelme's writings epitomize the slick, surreal cool of high postmodernist fiction. In his numerous hit-and-run short stories, which seem to have been dashed off during ten-minute taxi rides around Manhattan, he directs a pinpoint of light at fleeting moments of absurd human failings--moments made all the more poignant by the dark, existential dread that threatens to extinguish his laserlike torch. In "Perpetua" he offers glimpses of a nondescript woman who leaves her husband out of exhaustion and resentment, setting off to find new lovers, maybe one for each day of the week. Meanwhile her husband falls in love with a tattooed model from a men's magazine and, after receiving her "grid coordinates" from the magazine, embarks on a pointless libidinal safari.

Naomi Iizuka reworks Barthelme's ten-page story into 90 minutes of stage action in the 1995 play Tattoo Girl, adding characters and scenes but attempting to maintain the original's wry aloofness. When Barthelme's ephemeral images are pinned under such sustained focus, however, they tend to become glib and anecdotal--the woman's journey toward self-discovery seems an aimless, wacky romp. And Iizuka's pat, domesticated ending would have made Barthelme steam.

Director Shade Murray shows his usual minimalistic inventiveness--the set here is a single piece of scaffolding. But despite his earnest, spirited cast, Iizuka's escapade veers only rarely into recognizably human territory.

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