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First Comes Love . . .

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FIRST COMES LOVE . . .

Center Theater

Chicago playwright Elizabeth Shepherd's First Comes Love . . . (originally titled 14 Times) is a pleasant hour of gossipy story telling. The one- act is based on the life of Justine, a 70-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, woman who married seven men a total of 14 times over a period of 55 years. Since she has managed to stay single for the last 16 years, that amounts to a change of husbands every 2.78 years. Zsa Zsa, eat your heart out.

In Dan LaMorte's easygoing Center Theater staging, a world premiere that inaugurates the theater's Studio Series, Justine's multimarriage saga becomes an unpretentious, mostly unsentimental trip down a lot of lovers' lanes.

As Justine (Betty Owens) recalls her once and future husbands (she's taping her memoirs for her granddaughter), we see them perched on a row of bar stools, eager to comment on and brag about how they rated in their cameos as Justine's leading men. Most of them didn't rate high: no dewy-eyed romantic, Justine dropped or retrieved them depending on her job prospects and on what was best for the kids she accumulated along the way.

Justine sure could pick her men. Most of them were Oklahomans, three were drunks, one was a nut case. Two two-timed her as much as she did them, and one was too dumb to do much of anything (Justine has trouble even remembering his name). In a category of his own is the anonymous lover Justine never got around to marrying--he died in a highway accident.

Gene (Joseph Ryan), the first and oldest husband, was the childhood sweetheart she married twice (the first contract was annulled by her disapproving parents, who also forced her to have an abortion). The second, Bud (Dave Kappas), was the reliable one she married a record four times and had two kids with. A square-jawed farmer, he tried to confine her to the kitchen--one reason she turned to therapy and, that failing, almost killed herself with sleeping pills.

Hubbie number three was Ray (Dan Aris), a salesman, party animal, and booze hound who sported a Hawaiian shirt and a dopey smile. Justine married him twice, and they had one kid. Understandably, she married Henry (David Franks) only once; a wealthy rancher, he was also a dweebish paranoid, schizophrenic commie hunter, and occasional transvestite. Charley (Chuck Blumenthal) was worse, a hard-drinking Texas oilman and wife beater. The constantly confused Gus (John Shouse) was "dumber than a box of dirt." The last mate, Tommy (Wally Reule), was an inebriated weakling Justine loved mainly for his faults; she bitterly blames herself for the cirrhosis that killed him.

At the end of the play Justine confesses that she has a new boyfriend--Gene. She's come full circle, but this time, no matter how much Gene implores her, there won't be a 15th marriage. Experience has finally triumphed over hope. As Justine platitudinously points out, "The secret of life is to stay happy." And not to press your luck.

Apparently Shepherd stuck closely to the facts of the real Justine's story. That fidelity inevitably makes the chronicle more pedestrian and predictable than if she'd been freer in shaping the material. Happily, it also makes the play believable and likable--the documentarylike details smack of a real woman's messy love life.

Running a beauty parlor and keeping track of alimony payments, Justine was too busy to learn much beyond the all-purpose cliche. But as Owens plays her, she's salt-of-the- earth and no more oversexed than the average bride craving multiple honeymoons.

If Justine is always herself, the seven husbands vary as much as the menu of love allows, ranging from Blumenthal's swaggering Charley to Franks's nerdy Henry to Ryan's delightfully horny Gene. What temporarily unifies this male harem is a frenzied curiosity to know how well each was loved by the woman who had them all. Their sexual ranking is the least of their concerns--the play refuses to go tabloid on us. But a question such as "Why did you leave me?" has the men surrounding Justine and clamoring for a face-saving answer.

As always, Justine is enigmatic to a fault. Her reticence makes me wonder whether a lot of dirty laundry was quietly sent to the cleaners to keep this family entertainment. But the revelations that remain are juicy enough for a fun evening.

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