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The sentence is read: The Attorney will spend an eternity in rooms like this one.

Hell is full of fallen angels, some of whom started life as psychological counselors. In Elaine May's Hotline, Warren Keith reappears as Dr. Russel, the nervously twitching, Freud-babbling father figure who hovers over novice suicide counselor Ken Gardner (Andrew Hurteau). If the first of these one-acts portrays a character who realizes his own limitations, here we watch counselor Ken develop a serious God-complex: "Wait," he says, "I have another life to save." By the end of the act, we're wondering in fact who needs the real help, the callers or Ken; a potential suicide named Dorothy asks him, "Are you really this dumb?" It's clear, eventually, that hell isn't the only place where people are damned or saved.

Finally, in Woody Allen's comedy of manners Central Park West, we meet bored sinners stuck in earthly paradise. There's a cornucopia of hotline-worthy dysfunction at the home of loquacious Phyllis (Sara Heckelman), who has decorated her desirable address with trendy abstract art. As she throws back the gin and tonics, judgelike, she solicits confessions of deceit and adultery. Her mealy-mouthed and collagen-injected friend Carol (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) comes clean as the lover of Phyllis' husband, Sam; but Sam (Paul Vincent O'Connor) is no longer interested in Carol, having found a new, leggy twentysomething played by Johanna Mattox.

"I'm lost, I'm lost," Carol whines, and so might you be, in these eternal and infer-nal circles.

If these three playlets chart different social terrain, they share a common vision: a distaste for those who self-aggrandize at the expense of real human contact and communication. And in spite of the witty repartee common to these pieces, we certainly get a strong sense of deep desperation. The direction and the actors bring a rare expressivity to the short dramas (Paul Vincent O'Connor's Attorney is nearly perfect), walking that fine line between playful wit and serious solemnity, and strongly driving home a sense of the struggle not just to survive, but to feel a sense of place in the world.

The few sour notes come mostly from the writing, as with Woody Allen's strings of sexual humor. ("You're the all-American whore ... your diaphragm should be put in the Smithsonian," or, "You'd fuck a snake if someone held its head long enough.") Allen's neurotic characters have become so cliched that they are unable to carry the weight of their deeds, particularly when placed in the same production as Mamet's. And if Hotline begins to reverse the counselor/patient model, showing Ken to be more screwed up emotionally than his callers, this act's slapstick humor and amplified emotion often seem plain silly. Mostly, though, the character-driven acting, creative, small-space set design, and upbeat directing effectively transport us across times and spaces to show just how desperate we really are, and how far we're willing to go to survive.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

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