She falls in love, of course, and her father suspects that the man is a rootless gold-digger who wants Catherine for the family money. It can't be for Catherine's charm, in his harsh opinion, and when this opinion slips out, Catherine finally begins to mature. What's left uncertain in the play is whether Morris Townsend is really after Catherine's money -- the script gives this a new suspense -- and whether Catherine will take him back after a long separation that gives her father a chance to die. Robert Parsons, as Townsend, is the only clumsy actor on the stage, but since his character is so selfishly brash, the effect doesn't seem out of place. The show belongs to Torsiglieri, though, who works out the change in Catherine's character with a careful, natural conviction, seeming just as unconsciously charming as a daddy-bound girl as she does as a cold grown woman, hurt but wise, heiress to her father's cruelty.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Sax and Violence
Suicide in Bb. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Val Hendrickson. Starring Kelvin Han Yee, Sean San Jose, John Robb, Josh Jones, and Scheherazade Stone. Presented by 3rdSet at the Justice League, 628 Divisadero (at Hayes), Nov. 11-19. Call 440-0409.

The saxophone can screech, like a woman screaming or a fire siren late at night. Music that wanders out of its ordered system, back into pure sound and noise, can be annoying and even maddening -- the very reasons some people don't like jazz. Jazz flirts with disorder; the free-associating creative process is laid bare as an exposed bone. As Louis the detective in Suicide in Bb says, "All this free-form stuff is disturbing to my inner depths. It leaves me feeling nauseous. Like I'm going to throw everything up. Everything that's ever come into me."

Sam Shepard's Suicide in Bb is an experimental piece, working erratic jazz rhythms into a crime story. In the script, jazz is more metaphor than stage presence; but in the compelling new 3rdSet production that closed last week at the Justice League, music is the centerpiece. A quartet consumes most of the stage and jazz flows throughout the night; melodic jazz to set a mood alternating with erratic and improvisational jazz reminding the audience the play is about an artist on the brink of insanity. Balancing text and music, form and improvisation, the 3rdSet show develops its subject with rare perfection.

And Suicide in Bb is a show that could go horribly wrong. The layout is an invitation for musicians to act (and actors to play music), and the story defies logic: Two detectives, Louis and Pablo, enter a composer's apartment to investigate his death, but are driven mad by ghostly screams and echoes of the dead musician's work. Nor does 3rdSet try to make rational sense of an absurd play; slipping into the form, the musicians mix it up with the actors. One character, Laureen, is eliminated, her lines scattered among the players; at another point, percussionist Josh Jones leaves his place behind his drums to become the main character.

Niles the composer is supposed to be dead, but that doesn't stop him from returning to his apartment, his companion Paulette in tow, for a game of deadly dress-up. When Niles is costumed as a cowboy, Paulette shoots an arrow at him, but hits Louis the flatfoot. The sleuths haven't just entered Niles' apartment, they've invaded his psychic space.

Just as the detectives' rational defenses are broken down by entering the musician's "space," the performance's milieu -- waitresses circulating, graffiti art on the walls, the jazz combo playing -- wipes out our stale, seats-bolted-to-the-floor expectations about theater. Sean San Jose and Kelvin Han Yee are dead on as the uptight detectives thrust into the irrational world of the artist. As scuzzy saxophonist Petrone, John Robb is so impeccably cast you would think he'd sprung straight from Shepard's imagination. But vocalist Scheherazade Stone is the scene stealer; a vision of Josephine Baker in vintage gowns, she drifts effortlessly between her character Paulette and her place in the band.

The show ends no closer to a clean resolution than it begins. Niles appears in the real space of his apartment and confronts the men pursuing him. As the detectives slap on the cuffs, a voice-over fills the room, "Am I inside you right now? ... Driving you berserk? Creating explosions? Destroying your ancient patterns? ... Or am I just like you?" The verbal rhetoric fades with the lights, and at the curtain call the jazz starts up again.

-- Julie Chase

Hurlyburly. By David Rabe. Directed by Louis Parnell. Starring Parnell, James Cunningham, David McNees, Deborah Taylor, Michele McHall, Chloe Taylor, and Tony Abou-Ganim. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through Dec. 22. Call 567-6088.

David Rabe's Hurlyburly is as glaring and mean as L.A. itself, populated with morally absent Hollywood types who vacuum up cocaine and pot smoke like carpet dust and treat women like trading commodities. The set, at least in the current Actors Theater production, shows the kind of modern '80s interior that has always given me a headache -- white walls with miniblinds, cold metal stereo racks and a black leather couch, airbrushed art -- and the characters all have a matching flatness, a plain and glaring self-ignorance. From Oedipus Rex on, of course, self-ignorance has driven great theater, but Hurlyburly wallows in it, more or less the way the '80s did.

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