Story Hour

Out There The Business

The Zoo Story
By Edward Albee. Directed by Aida Jones. Starring Carolyn Bates and Kerry LaBelle. Presented by the 511e Chronicles at the Brava! Studio, 2180 Bryant, through Jan. 26. Call 982-6422.

To most people, "alternative staging" means a Wild West Taming of the Shrew, a multiracial Our Town, or gender-swapping in the major players. 511e Chronicles' production of The Zoo Story casts two women as Peter and Jerry -- but sex-swapping is only the most superficial way in which 511e reinvents Edward Albee's freshman play. First performed in Berlin in 1959, The Zoo Story's great themes of alienation and redemption were apparently too much for the decade of the family hour. But in the decades since, the play has come to personify a triumph of the one-act form, moving swiftly to dramatic catharsis in a compact space. Jerry, a manic and a transient, initiates a conversation with publishing executive Peter in Central Park. Peter's Eastern middle-class civility keeps him nailed to the bench as the disturbed drifter's diatribe charts the frustrations of modern life.

People familiar with the standard ranting-head rendition of the play may be put off by this interpretation's deliberately soporific pace. Jerry's seven-page rage about a dog usually comes off like Spalding Gray on speed. But this slow and rhythmic approach brings out some of the text's undertones. Kerry LaBelle, as Jerry, works carefully through the longer speeches with the slow tick of a metronome, more a confused Ophelia than a Muni passenger driven to the brink by late N Judahs. Carolyn Bates complements this with a sympathy and patience not usually awarded to the character of Peter. 511e's alterations to The Zoo Story don't tamper with the meaning of Albee's text; the program's notes make no excuses for the female casting, and by the performance's conclusion there is no need.

As a supplement to the play's lyrical approach, 511e has arranged for a rotation of local musicians to play before each performance. The buskers contribute to a cafe atmosphere, part of the company's attempt to capture the elusive concept of a "living theater." The Brava! theater occupies an unmarked building, but a slide projector casts the production logo onto its brick exterior. The box office is a card table at the back of the performance space, and before the play company members make friendly plugs for other Mission artists.

-- Julie Chase

The Stand-In
By Keith Curran. Directed by Danny Scheie. Starring Matt Cornwall, Stephen Bowman, Carmen Elena Sosa, and P.A. Cooley. At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., through Feb. 8. Call 861-5079.

A "play about gay stereotypes in Hollywood" sounds only slightly more appetizing than a dance about late-term abortions or a sculpture about Internet censorship. But Keith Curran's last play at Theater Rhinoceros, the harrowing tragicomedy Walking the Dead, offered an excoriating look into the complexities of a female-to-male sex change. The Stand-In probes these themes of sexual reinvention with a goofier attitude and a petit ax to grind.

Although the first sequences of wigged talk-show hosts and cloying tango dancing threaten to fulfill your worst fears, the play soon reveals a thicker subtext beneath its campy exterior. Mixing caustic wit, cinematic pacing, and characters who implode with contradictions, Curran manages to do what almost never works: build a play around an idea. Under Danny Scheie's exuberant direction, the versatile cast of 10 actors playing over 40 roles ignites a vivid, ironic, and finally provocative tale of coming out in the limelight.

The story follows Lester Perry -- played by the convincingly wooden Matt Cornwall -- a studly, stuttering soap opera star, who accepts a role in You're Out!, a cable porn movie about a gay umpire. Faced with an aggressive tango teacher, a suspicious girlfriend, an outspoken call boy, and a probing paparazzo, Lester is forced to confront his own splintered identity and closeted sexuality.

On the surface, The Stand-In is about Kevin (Stephen Bowman), the "real homosexual," who replaces Lester in the movie's sex scenes. But the title resonates with the many characters who've created stand-ins to mask their true selves. Lester's ostensible girlfriend -- played as a sci-fi S/M diva by the lightning-tongued Carmen Elena Sosa -- claims that she remade her identity (she calls herself a "cyborg") to escape her original identity, as a little girl named Nancy Reagan. (Gossip on the set has it that she was actually a man.) Correspondents from Entertainment Tonight turn out to be undercover journalists from Queer Times. Male prostitute Sparky admits he uses different names to fulfill his clients' desires. Finally, Lester is the biggest stand-in of all, deceiving no one more than himself.

Despite the carnival of doltish actors, slimy agents, duplicitous journalists, and pompous directors, Curran's broad-brushed portrayal of Hollywood somehow avoids bombast. Behind their masks, characters exhibit subtle quirks of speech and action that both heighten the satire and ground the play in its own peculiar reality. For instance, Lester's Midwestern parents -- dazzlingly portrayed by Alexis Lezin and David Eppel -- are cheerfully queer-friendly, referring to two women they met on a Caribbean cruise as "our lesbians." The script succumbs to earnest diatribe only rarely, as when the Queer Times reporter (P.A. Cooley) lectures Lester that closeted celebrities are guilty of supporting "institutionalized apathy." "People are dying because of terrified little shits like you. The troops are advancing," he declares, throwing down his backpack angrily.

Despite these momentary lapses into ideological cant, Curran lets no one escape his wicked satire. ACT UP protesters are referred to as "people who chant annoying things that rhyme and lie in traffic." In a spoof of hetero-guy talk, when fellow straight man Cody asks why Lester's character loves Cody's character, Lester responds: "Uh -- because of his masculinarity, man." "All men are men, man!" Cody fumes, obviously disappointed that he didn't elicit a more particular kind of flattery.

Finally, the story of Lester's coming-out is as much about discovering one's voice as figuring out who to kiss. As the play progresses, Lester's flattened syntax of "man"s and "wanna"s begins to crack and reveal the topography of personality. When stroking Sparky's deltoids, Lester waxes awkwardly poetic, at one point calling the skin "papery," a word that sends him into paroxysms of girlish giggles. Through the stammering and bad grammar, Curran shows us the underside of how self-knowledge is created: by individuals reaching past ready-made meanings into the chaos of precise personal expression. Encapsulating this herculean search for a self, Lester says: "Every day -- this is so too much and I don't know how much more of me I can take." In these moments, Curran transcends his agenda and lets us glimpse into the brambled core of his subject.

-- Carol Lloyd

American Buffalo
By David Mamet. Directed by Louis Parnell. Starring Tony Abou-Ganim, Ian Hirsch, and Frank Potter. Presented by the Genesius Theater Company at the 450 Geary Studio Theater, 450 Geary, through Feb. 2. Call 673-1172.

If capitalism teaches its young to be selfish, competitive, and paranoid, hearing about it these days from a playwright like Bertolt Brecht is not very persuasive. Brecht was an armchair fan of Stalin who had a solution to the dark side of the West, a solution that all but crumbled a few years ago. In the name of his "Alienation Effect" he abandoned the bourgeois conceit of emotion, and wanted people to seethe with sensible communist anger after seeing his plays. American Buffalo, by David Mamet, is more subtle. It's the other Mamet play in town, attracting less attention than the West Coast premiere of The Cryptogram; but this 2-decade-old satire on American business still feels fresh in the hands of a skillful cast. It manages to out-Brecht Brecht without sacking emotion or solving the crisis of capitalism.

The play is being revived at the 450 Geary Studio Theater in the wake of a short-lived movie with Dustin Hoffman. The version playing at 450 Geary should satisfy anyone who likes Mamet for what he's good at -- the tide of street-slang music, the surging duets of nonsense dialogue and their gut-felt arcs of emotion. The play is about a junk-shop owner's plans to steal a buffalo nickel back from one of his customers. He promises a kid named Bobby a cut of the profit for performing the actual heist, but his friend Teach convinces him that Bobby lacks the experience to rob a house, and by the end of Act 1 Donny fires the boy and enlists Teach.

Tony Abou-Ganim plays Teach as an enormous, blustering con who probably couldn't rob a hot-dog stand. Bobby, performed by Frank Potter, is a glum, shy, loping kid who takes object lessons in "business" from the two older men. Ian Hirsch plays an excellent Donny Dubrow, proprietor of the kitchenware and trinket shelves that surround them on the set. "Business is business," Donny and Teach like to say, "and friends are friends," but their definitions, like most people's, are fuzzy. Mamet's dialogue traces the shapes of feelings with its back-and-forth rhythms. Brecht considered it artistic surrender to pay such attention to feeling, but these actors know what they're doing, and after they warm up to Mamet's routines the play is unstoppable. The surging dialogue's premonitions of rage explode into a tantrum that brings down Donny's junk shelves and leaves young Bobby bleeding from the ear. It's magnificent theater, satisfying in a way that Brecht's polemic plays never were, and when those plays start to thump like embarrassing jokes I imagine Buffalo will still be alive, raising old questions about "business" to generations who don't know about communism.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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