Games people play

"The Play's the Thing" amuses after a slow start; "Touch" gives a sweet, comic look at sometime occultists

How difficult it is to start a play,” reflects fictional playwright Sandor Turai (Ken Ruta) in the opening scene of ACT's The Play's the Thing. It seems so. While the character considers the problem in this 1926 comedy by Ferenc Molnar (dubbed the “Hungarian Moliere”), adapted by P.G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame), what should be a lightning-fast farce bogs down. The first scene is so overburdened with exposition, it nearly topples under its own weight.

This is a comedy that looks at artifice — that glories in it, actually — right down to the gorgeous rococo set (designed by John B. Wilson), with its exposed scaffolding and shaky canvas walls. Three theatrical collaborators — the philosophically inclined Turai, his partner Mansky (Ken Grantham) and their young protegee, composer Albert Adam (Don Burroughs) — have descended on a house party at an Italian palazzo to surprise Ilona Szabo (Kimberly King), the prima donna who is to star in their newest operetta. Ilona is also Albert's fiancee. At Turai's request, her room is directly off the suite shared by the three men.

Unfortunately, Albert isn't her only suitor: Also on the premises is Almady (Stephen Markle), a flamboyant actor who has been carrying on an adulterous affair with Ilona. Naturally, his seductive pleadings and her weak-kneed surrender are overheard by the naive Albert, who stands outside the door with his two godfathers, Turai and Mansky.

Turai resolves to repair this disaster, to rewrite life so it all turns out like a good comedy, happy ending included. He pulls this off by writing a play-within-a-play that uses Ilona's and Almady's words in a new and entirely innocent context. It is no small feat, and involves such essential props as a peach. That Turai accomplishes all this with imaginative genius is the fun part. That it takes so long to get underway makes The Play's opening debate seem prescient — and even slightly apologetic.

While there are lovely touches by director Benny Sato Ambush (such as the opening sight gag of three smokers puffing away in the dark, the red tips of their cigars sending eloquent signals), the overall pace remains slow. Inventive poses and elaborate delineations of character — particularly by Joe Bellan, as the footman Dwornitschek — are entertaining, but seem unduly self-conscious and undermine the desired frothy effect. It's as though Wodehouse has whipped up a souffle and Ambush has flattened it with overrich sauces.

It isn't until the third act, when we get to the play-within-the-play, that the elements of comedy come together and create a momentum of their own. Dan Hiatt as the stressed-out and confused stage manager/prompter is marvelous. Likewise Stephen Markle as the vain philanderer Almady. And as far as I'm concerned, anytime you have Ken Ruta or Ken Grantham onstage, it's cause for celebration.

Touch — written and directed by David Draffin, and subtitled, “a transcen-sinusoidal hagiographic pentathrenody in four acts” — is not a dirge, nor do you need to brush up on your trigonometry or the lives of the saints to enjoy it. It's a sweet comedy/drama of five twentysomethings who decide to investigate the occult together, and manage, not surprisingly, to overturn their lives and expectations as a result.

Rachel (Alice-Gray Lewis), Pie (Erin Merritt), Joseph (David Parriss), Claire (Tina Spears) and Neville (Draffin) begin meeting on Monday evenings to read the tarot and ask questions of “Sutri,” a spirit-alien Pie is channeling. Neville (who is videotaping the sessions) and Pie are the only blind believers. The other three exhibit varying degrees of skepticism.

Rachel, who is gorgeous and not terribly bright, has no interest in anything that's not immediately clear to her; what she does know is that she's beautiful, and men want to make love to her. Joseph finds it difficult to be direct, but enjoys the wisecracking scorn of his live-in girlfriend, Claire, a brilliant physicist who is out to trip up Sutri. Her trap leads to the disastrous intrusion of another, more hostile alien presence and to the subsequent reshuffling of all their relationships.

Rather than relying on a linear narrative style, Draffin has constructed the play in blocks of scenes, which makes for an initially slow pace — conversation in and of itself is not particularly dramatic — but rewards in the end. We are won over by these characters' earnestness and sincerity, as well as by some really memorable performance moments.

Most notable, I have to say with considerable admiration, is Draffin's Neville. As an actor he exhibits a quirky and individual presence. While everyone in this ensemble was fine, I also especially liked Alice-Gray Lewis, whose jaded Rachel is funny and heartbreaking.

The Play's the Thing runs through April 2 at the Stage Door Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2228; Touch runs through March 19 at the Climate Theatre in S.F.; call 626-9196.

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