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DUETS, Excaliber Shakespeare Company, at the Heartland Studio Theater. Jeff Helgeson's archly written pair of short plays are as alienating as the miscommunications he stages. Excaliber Shakespeare Company's playwright in residence, Helgeson has created characters frozen in narrow roles, puppets who haven't yet earned their independence from their creator. Despite his sophisticated language, the playwright seems to be manipulating fragments of himself using a barely decipherable personal code.

From a Different Place illustrates the failure of intimacy between two old friends. In this simply structured one-act, two opposite character types reveal the frustrated disconnection that leaves them both mired in banality. Despite a great deal of tension, they're going nowhere. In the Moment gives us two stagehands who philosophize about what we, the audience, might want from them. They don't ask us or make genuine eye contact, so the play becomes an exercise in dramaturgical history rather than the wry game the playwright intended.

In both cases Helgeson works too hard to convince us of the plays' depth. Interactions between characters, and with the audience, are reduced to a terse shorthand. When emotions flare or insights bloom they feel forced, despite the steadiness of the four performers. A blessedly short evening, "Duets" is really a solo for the playwright, lecturing an imaginary audience.

--Carol Burbank

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