Stage

Word Play
Verbatim. By Terri Kasch. Directed by Mark Staley. Starring Timothy Lane, Shoshana Kuttner, Jason Arquin, and Brighid O'Shaughnessy. Produced by Mike Balsam and the Grindstone Theater Company at Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Aug. 2. Call 474-5865.

The program has the weave and weight of a slim chapbook of serious verse. On the stage, books lay atumble across shelves adorned with cobwebs. The main character orders dictionaries by the caseload and interrupts his family's conversations to check the precise definition of the words they use. Already this is heady territory for a twentysomething, first-time playwright. But if there is one thing Terri Kasch's Verbatim does, it is to call into question the role labels -- from "twentysomething" or "first-time" to "genius" or "slow-witted" -- play in our lives. How does one critique a play that so eloquently invokes the powerfully destructive and imperfect art of criticism?

A hybrid of Borges' labyrinthian language-based fantasies and Arthur Miller's dysfunctional family dramas, the play tells the story of the word-conscious Daily family, who run a rare- and used-book store. When milquetoast patriarch Scott (perfectly embodied by Timothy Lane) discovers that he is not only defined in the dictionary but that the entry is constantly changing, his entire family begins to unravel. His teen-age daughter, Zoe -- who has been labeled a "genius" and is played as a Molotov cocktail of expressivity by Shoshana Kuttner -- returns from being kicked out of boarding school; his "slow-witted" son, Junior, begins to rebel; and his wife (a versatile Brighid O'Shaughnessy) demands a reassessment of their marriage. As the plot thickens so too do Scott's definitions: "an average man with a wife and two children; the sort of individual who looks himself up in the dictionary" becomes "an American ideal of modern living" and finally a "murderer by desire."

Like Ionesco's beasts in Rhinoceros, Kasch's dictionary definition starts out as a seemingly absurd conceit and gradually develops into a complex, mercurial metaphor for human interaction. At times, Scott accuses Junior of controlling the definition, demanding that he "change it back"; other times the dictionary seems to have a mind of its own -- bringing Scott fame and fortune as well as ignominy and obscurity. Two customers -- Broca (the delightfully annoying Courtney Jones) and Wernicke (the captivating, Jim Carey-esque Todd Jones) -- represent the outside world's opinions in stylized scenes full of idiosyncratic cadences. As the dictionary's definitions change, so does the pair's attitude: They unctuously plead for autographed copies or imperiously demand their money back.

In the play's second act, the fantastical contours give way to uglier, deeper terrain. Junior (a wily and nuanced Jason Arquin) becomes convinced that his father wants to kill him; he decides to pre-empt his father by attempting suicide first. In the ensuing climax, Kasch traces the unstable chemistry between the language used to describe us and our destiny. The parent's cavalier compliment, the teacher's criticism, the label of alcoholic in a 12-step meeting, all mark us with identities that we may rail against but can never fully escape. Though this act sometimes suffers from an unwieldy confluence of themes, emotions, and plot twists, its breadth and energy marks Kasch as just the kind of emerging talent the Bay Area needs: ambitious, passionate, and as attentive to the feelings that language can evoke as to the weight of language itself.

-- Carol Lloyd

Earnestly
The Importance of Being Earnest. By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Dan Oliverio. Starring J. David Blazevich, Kurt Bodden, and Andrea Pruseau. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through Aug. 31. Call 474-8800.

"I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest," wrote George Bernard Shaw after seeing it in 1895. "It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening." Shaw crossed swords with Oscar Wilde again for a few weeks on the outskirts of Union Square, when ACT's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession was still playing a few blocks south of The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Lorraine Hansberry; and it's no insult to the Hansberry group to say that Wilde can't win. Everything we laugh at now in Victorian life, Wilde and Shaw laughed at first; but Shaw scorched his subject with the lightning force of a prophet. Wilde just tittered at his, with the amusement of an Oxford-bred dandy.

His two fops, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, lead town-and-country double lives. Jack is known as "Ernest" in the city, so he can misbehave without taking blame for it in the country, where he plays wholesome chaperone to a young woman, Cecily. (She thinks Ernest is Jack's brother.) Jack is ready to drop the deception and admit his real name as he proposes to Gwendolen Fairfax; but Miss Fairfax likes the name Ernest so well he decides to get rechristened. In the meantime Algernon drives to the country and seduces Cecily by posing as Ernest. Cecily can't stand the name "Algernon." Comedy ensues.

Meghan Marx plays a convincingly spoiled Cecily, the sort of Victorian teen-ager who tells her governess, "I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson." She has a fine, earnest sense of farce that keeps her in character even when her character grows hysterical. Richard Ryan's huge body and well-intentioned face make a perfect Punch-style stage cartoon as the Rev. Chasuble, and Andrea Pruseau is excellent as the iron Lady Bracknell, the absurdly uptight mother of Miss Fairfax. But Miss Fairfax is played with a crude feeling for comedy by Jeanette Ellen Luhr, who has all her postures right but no control over her voice. Kurt Bodden and J. David Blazevich both do well as Ernest and Algernon, with Algernon appropriately more obnoxious than Ernest; but their farce-feeling overreaches sometimes, too, and their voices show the strain. John Anthony Nolan is amusingly wry as the two servants Lane and Merriman, and he doesn't seem to distinguish the parts at all, which makes it funnier.

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