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Split & PlayGround's 4th Annual Emerging Playwrights Festival

Split
Arthur (Owen Murphy), an ethics professor at an East Coast college, can't decide between his wife of 34 passionless years and Clare (Elizabeth Benedict), a Los Angeles-based theatre company literary manager whom he's routinely turned to for illicit sex and comfort. Actually, Arthur wants not to have to decide, but Clare has forced the issue by getting engaged to another man and vowing to cut off the physical relationship with Arthur. Mayo Simon's play is a 60-something variation on Bernard Slade's Same Time Next Year and Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Like those precursors, it's a facile script covering routine ground: Clare and Arthur discuss some minor-league philosophy about wanting to join with God, crack wise about men and sports, men and remote controls, blah blah blah, and spout mundane pop psychology. In this Aurora Theatre production, Murphy is very good as Simon's nervous professor, emitting occasional neurotic giggles, stuck in indecision and fearful of taking action. But Arthur, as conceived by Simon, is a boy. He wants to believe he can control his lovers, that he doesn't need them. Clare, as portrayed by Benedict, is a woman. This is the best work I've seen Benedict do -- shaking her head to suppress tears then grimacing humorously, breaking down as she tells Arthur about her own pain, forcing Arthur to grow up. When she bares her shapely legs and lovely shoulders, you think, what the hell is Arthur's problem? Who wouldn't choose Clare over a sexless marriage? Arthur and Clare don't belong in the same world, let alone the same play. With Jack Powell as the voice of Arthur's inner idiot stud. Directed by Loy Arcenas.

Through July 2 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Call (510) 843-4822.

PlayGround's 4th Annual Emerging Playwrights Festival
The seven short plays offered in PlayGround's enjoyable fourth annual festival provide broad comedy or absurdist non sequitur or both at once; there's also the occasional overdose of cleverness. The evening's opener, "Self-Help" (by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, directed by Cliff Mayotte) features Colin Thomson as a poor schmuck addicted to self-help tapes -- a familiar target, but the script contains some great jokes and Thomson is hilarious. His nondescript owlish looks both make you laugh and instantly win your sympathy. A later high point is Ellen Koivisto's One-Act of the Absurd, "Chop," directed by Virginia Reed. Two apartment complex denizens (Anne Darragh and Michael Ray Wisely) lie by the pool exchanging banalities and petty slights, while a newcomer (Benton Greene) tries to figure out how to avoid being injured by an unseen force (Thomson again, wearing safety goggles and a tool belt). Casting Greene, who is African-American, works particularly well, heightening his separation from the longtime (white) residents who can avoid Thomson's ridiculous karate chops, but can't be bothered to help out a newcomer. Wisely does his best acting in Cailin Boyle's "Jung Love," expertly directed by Patrick Dooley. As a neophyte therapist preparing for his first session, Wisely knots his necktie, sharpens his pencils, and arranges his notepad, his actions choreographed to Mozart. His patient happens to be young Juliet (Virginia Wilcox) who's having some familiar-sounding problems with her parents, boyfriend, and boyfriend's parents. Boyle doesn't exploit the Shakespeare angle enough, however, and resorts to a disappointing O. Henry-esque turnabout ending. A great character comedian, he gives the most memorable performances of the evening. The remaining pieces, all of them with worthwhile moments, are by Amy A. Kirk, Tania L. Katan, Sean Owens, and Sean Smith.

Through June 25 at A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (between 17th St. and Mariposa). Call 388-5208.

 
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