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Relationship Hell

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RELATIONSHIP HELL

Strawdog Theatre Company

"Relationship Hell," Strawdog Theatre's 70-minute trio of one-acts, never gets quite as tormented as its title suggests: this looks more like purgatory, where infidelity undermines whatever connections these 11 characters may make. But hell can come in small doses: there's real pain behind these characters' quirks and kinks. It's possible that some of Strawdog's audience will pick up survival strategies by heeding the characters' mistakes. And the rest will be entertained.

The most hellish, or meanest, offering is Gorgo's Mother, Laurence Klavan's anatomy of love addiction, which seems aimlessly plotted until you see how consistently one-sided its relationships are. Brian (Robert Bailey II), a publisher made larcenous by love, steals books to give money to his demure colleague Joanne (Jacquelyn Ritz), who gives it to her adored Kenny (John Neisler), a dope dealer, who hands it to his obsession, Terry (Mary Booker), a doped-up "escort." Obviously no one loves the right one, or, as the playwright says three times, "Some things only look big until you see them next to other things."

This portrait of wasted feelings and dead-end affections is lightened by the oddball traits Klavan has given his lovelorn losers: Terry is convinced she's Asian, Joanne tells how--possessed by a Kafka-esque impulse--she once dressed up like a cockroach, Brian loves monster lore (hence the title), and Kenny is upset by how his apartment's newly installed windows let in far too much of the world. Richard Shavzin's staging, a Chicago premiere, jerks a few too many laughs from these offbeat confessions, however; and we're not quite prepared for the way the play darkens into a dramatic dead end. Bailey is quite touching as the odd man out; every time his Brian tries to connect, he only confirms his loneliness.

John Guare's The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year traces in sparse scenes and speeches a wooing in a park. The suitor is He (Neisler), a 28-year-old eccentric with a wife and a penchant for embroidering the facts; She (Deb Seigel) is a paranoid ex-Ohioan who's delighted that after 11 months someone in New York has finally spoken to her. Of course He turns out to be a wacko who tells yarns about how a polar bear bit off his debutante sister's arm. (She grew back a new one covered with polar bear hair.) His job, it turns out, is to be a "Seeing Eye person for blind dogs." Eventually his wife shows up, with a big blue rifle and a sharp aim. This relationship really does go to hell.

Shavzin's staging is a tad too naturalistic for Guare's sketch, which consists of whimsy piled over fancy. Neisler and Seigel could have brought a lighter touch to the crossed-signal exchanges between He and She; too much gravity weighs down their dialogue.

Lanford Wilson's Abstinence, written for the 20th-anniversary gala of his Circle Repertory Company, is a swift farce that spoofs the self-induced breakdowns of Manhattan's beautiful people, a Chicago premiere that is at any rate cause for curiosity. With its group portrait of fashionably disturbed Gothamites as viewed by their jaundiced maid, Martha (Booker), Abstinence is a feast for actors. Danna, a recovering alcoholic who still craves her nightly anesthesia, is intent on celebrating her 366 days on the wagon by bedding Lon, her best friend's filthy-rich husband. Their coupling involves carnal fun with vegetables, no doubt the usual sexual outlet for jaded but horny New Yorkers.

As staged by Larry Novikoff, Abstinence seems almost as odd as it is outrageous. For Danna's nervous breakdown, a textbook example of intentional overacting, Seigel resorts to emoting-by-numbers, while Neisler, playing a physicist who wanders into the action, seems too much on his own. But it's hard to demand stylistic consistency when Wilson has done little more than concoct a half-baked farce for a special occasion.

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