Act a Lady: NCTC's cross-dressing show is a drag

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Through April 26. $22-$34; 861-8972 or www.nctcsf.org.
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F.

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Act a Lady ought to be a great time. Set in the Midwest in 1927, it's a comedy that considers what happens when small-town menfolk begin impersonating womenfolk at the local playhouse. In the show's Bay Area premiere at NCTC, the actors work admirably, sometimes even successfully, to make dramatic sense of the material — in particular, Glenn Kiser's drag act is worthy of a far better play. But the performers can only do so much with a preachy, bizarrely undeveloped script. (I say "bizarrely" because the play made its debut at Louisville's vaunted Humana Festival and has since been produced elsewhere to some acclaim, so you'd think we'd be dealing with a relatively polished product here.) Playwright Jordan Harrison tries to create a self-serious backstage comedy about Midwestern men who don dresses and learn grand new truths about gender identity. But instead of letting his characters transform gradually as we watch, he simply alternates between backstage and onstage action, never giving us a clear sense of how one informs the other. The result feels like two totally separate plays competing for attention, with the drag scenes providing just enough witty dialogue to make you wonder how the whole thing went so wrong.

 
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