But Earnest is really just a model of perfect sitcom writing. In that sense maybe Shaw lost his duel. He once predicted his "evolutionist" theater would replace the rites-and-drama role of the church; and he might have been right if TV hadn't kicked theater out of that role and held sway there ever since -- using material descended from Wilde. "If the public ever becomes intelligent enough to know when it is really enjoying itself and when it is not," Shaw wrote, ahead of our time as well as his, "there will be an end of farcical comedy." In the meantime, Earnest is perfectly charming.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Out There
Avenues. By Jeffrey Nishimura. Directed by Mark Nishimura. Starring Shirley Smallwood, Siovonne Smith, Benton Greene, and Kristen M. Lui. Presented by Theater Rhubarb at the City Cabaret, 450 Geary (at Mason), through Aug. 2. Call 751-0439.

Billed as an anti-romantic comedy about three couples in a cafe somewhere in the urban suburb known as "the avenues," the three interlinking one-acts of Jeffrey Nishimura's Avenues promised humble narrative parameters. No circus performing, no cross-dressing, no poetic political debates by a tribe of Austro-Hungarian terrorists trapped on one of Saturn's rings. Just some regular San Franciscans with relationship problems guzzling French roast. Ideally, one might want more substantive raw material, but small scopes often bode well for beginning playwrights who adopt the "write what you know" admonition with touching literalness. But in the case of Avenues, the modest setting failed to avert theatrical disaster.

Nishimura and director Mark Nishimura (his brother) exhibit some promising formal ideas. The evening opens with a spotlight on a woman (Shirley Smallwood) singing a sultry jazz number about lost love. Smallwood's spirited, husky interpretations of romantic tumult are the evening's high points. (Though her reality within the play is never clear. At times actors would acknowledge her as part of the coffeehouse environs; others ignored her as if she were providing a private emotional score.) Another device with enormous potential the pair use is having characters pass through each other's stories, searching for a lover or espresso. The conceit nicely underscores the characters' romantic myopia; they all think they're the center of the universe. And finally, similarly tempting notions are captured in Siovonne Smith's monologue at the end of the play. As she touches on atoms, loneliness, and the maddening laws of attraction, Avenues briefly flashes a design much deeper and more intriguing than what has come before.

Otherwise Nishimura's script tumbles into every pothole and sand pit in the playwright's obstacle course.

Unnecessary and Unbelievable Exposition: "I can't believe she's late again! She always does this and it drives me crazy!" cries Cole (the charming but exaggerated Benton Greene) apparently to himself.

Sitcom Reality: Miranda (a histrionic Kristen M. Lui), in spike heels and pantyhose, meets her business-suited boyfriend (Gary Wilson) in the cafe for relationship therapy with Jacques (Jed Low). Neither the costumes, nor the actions, nor the characters bear any resemblance to any San Francisco coffee shop I've ever visited. Could it be there's a burgeoning yet undiscovered avenue-cafe culture where dressed-up yuppies come to do therapy?

Dialogue Striving for Wit Through the Guise of Formal Banter: When Woman 1 (Kate Sheehan) and Jerome (Jason Whitaker) slide into forced repartee about the differences between the genders, one feels that someone has been reading a touch too much Shaw.

In the end, it's difficult to know who -- actors, director, or playwright -- handicapped whom. With momentary exceptions, the cast of 11 actors overplay their parts with soap-operatic fervor. San Francisco needs new troupes like Theater Rhubarb to seize the stage and self-produce, but half-baked goods at the local cafe will only sour the public on future delights.

-- Carol Lloyd

Kielbasia: Queen of Poland 2. Written and performed by Matthew Worsyzlo, aka Matthew Morin. At Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room, 579 Hayes (at Laguna), through July 26. Call 864-1441.

I recommend seeing anything at Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room just because the "Magic Garden" in back is so pleasant. Strings of lights hang in the bushes overgrowing the garden walls and you can have coffee and borscht while you sit at the mercy of whoever's on the tiny stage. Kielbasia, Queen of Poland, is holding court there now, with a long accordion-studded monologue about her recent bike trip across Eastern Europe.

Kielbasia wears large glasses, a white shawl, thick nylons, a heavy skirt, and an apron. She's a former lunch-line worker descended from the legendary Queen Jadwiga of Poland, who reigned at the end of the 1300s. Her current show is a sequel to the one she first brought to Klubstitute in 1994, which followed her journey from the lunch lines of Manhattan to a climactic battle in Warsaw for the honorary title of Queen. Kielbasia 2 has a disillusioned Queen biking across Europe in search of ancestral recipes, and eventually flying back to New York. It's not only a slide show and a musical of sorts, but also a drag show, Dame Kielbasia being an "homage to the Mythic Queen in us all" by the half-Polish Matthew Morin.

An aging Polish woman makes an ideal drag character, of course, because masculine touches only bolster the illusion. Morin doesn't have to pitch up or mellow his voice; his breasts can be flour sacks; his legs stay covered. And since he never slips out of character, his show is wholesome: Kielbasia is the kind of queen you can bring your kids to see. She carries two weapons, a soup ladle called "Wuschka" and an accordion, which she straps on now and then to liven some narrative point. Slides from her trip illustrate her story, showing her bicycle, her sausage cart, a picture of her "in drag" (as Lech Walesa), and so on. After a dream about her dead grandfather, pictured as a hearty peasant in a field, Kielbasia describes the motivation for her ancestral-recipe tour across the Carpathians: "The only thing left from my past was --" she says, switching the slide to a blank screen "-- nothing."

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