The play is basically about a fouled-up job interview. Geraldine Barclay comes into a London psychiatric clinic for an interview with Dr. Prentice, who is a lech. He convinces her that she should strip as part of the interview; but right after she does, his wife walks in. Mrs. Prentice is a lush with peccadilloes of her own to hide, and the twining catastrophes of the doctor and his wife trying to keep their little sins a secret fuel a hugely convolved and ridiculous play. Mad plot contortions fall in with the theme, since the story plays out in a psychiatric clinic -- the only sane character, Miss Barclay, is quickly committed to the ward. "Notice the obstinacy with which she clings to her suburban upbringing," Dr. Prentice says to a government inspector named Dr. Rance when Miss Barclay refuses to get out of her clothes again, to put on a patient's robe. Dr. Rance: "Have you tried shock treatment?"

Butler's big irony is that the British sophistication Orton brings to his low humor is exactly what makes it so good. His razor wit is stropped and gleaming, even if his idea of civilization as a madhouse deteriorates because he can't follow it through. The story resolves with a deliberately stupid Freudian twist; and the Chameleon Theater's cast, unfortunately, runs out of steam before that. Sarah Stillpass directs the show with the idea that overwrought performances won't spoil the spirit of the script, and they don't, except that most of the cast can't feel the down moments, and during the high-energy ones you can almost see Walter Niejadlik and Mark Hardwicke (as Drs. Prentice and Rance) laughing at themselves. Lee Kiszonas plays a compelling Mrs. Prentice about half the time, and John Elliot Kirk is better as a pageboy-in-drag than he is as the pageboy himself. Rebecca Stow turns in the one true performance; she shows tact and intelligence as the constantly put-upon Miss Barclay and comes off, like her character, as the only sane person in the ward.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Buried Child
When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable). By Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin. Directed by Chaikin. Starring Alan Mandell, Corie Henninger, and John Maxwell. At the Magic Theater, Building D of Fort Mason Center, through May 11. Call 441-8822.

When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) is perfectly inoffensive. It's superbly acted and directed, there's a nice clean story line and tidy closure on the central conflict. Like approachable Thornton Wilder scripts, it will be overplayed by high schools and colleges looking for literary quality combined with affordable sets. That is if it isn't completely forgotten. Remember A Memory of Two Mondays by Arthur Miller? He probably doesn't either. Great artists have their mediocre moments; When the World Was Green is an off night in stage sports for Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin. It won't dent their distinguished oeuvre; but it lacks the agitated, visceral writing of Shepard's other works and the drifting, desperate souls that Chaikin is master of. It's hollow but not hauntingly so.

We're in an eerie, existential wasteland. The set is a gray prison cell with one hard bed and the classic window with bars. A pianist strikes single notes like a death knell as the inmate tells his story. The unnamed convict has killed a man -- the wrong man, actually, somebody who looked like his cousin Carl and drank the same wine. Carl, the intended target, was marked for death because of an old European blood feud. (A good mule died mysteriously in a field and a family was divided.) The victim puffed up and keeled over from poisoned mashed potatoes. His assassin is emotionally indifferent to this crime. He was destined to avenge the insult; if the wrong guy died, c'est la vie. He's old, he's tired, his work is done. Insomnia and a lack of appetite are the only punishments the old man brings on himself.

This emotional distance is broadcast to the audience, and there's nothing to sympathize with or despise about the weary old man. Only his regular visitor, a young reporter trying to investigate his story, seems to care. The nameless woman, played delicately by Corie Henninger, is on a similar manhunt. Her father abandoned her when she was an infant, and she wanders New Orleans waiting to cross his path. Through a series of interviews the pair bond on the subject of obsessively stalking loved ones and sprout a cautious friendship. Potential friction (did the man accidentally kill her father?) emerges, then fades. Most of the tension comes from the inner conflicts laid out in the monologues that are placed tidily between the duologues like black keys on the piano. The balance is admirable, but the script is too tight and even; the characters never too sentimental or tragic. The emptiness of human life can be devastating and the collaborators have successfully dramatized this topic before, but this simply isn't their strongest work.

-- Julie Chase

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