Everybody's familiar with anxiety dreams -- those night terrors about the test for which you forgot to study, or the meeting for which you forgot to prepare, or the dinner party for which you forgot to cook.
Now imagine an anxiety dream in a more public forum. In Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare" the bad dream concerns a mild-mannered accountant who suddenly finds himself performing in a play he's never rehearsed with actors he's never met.
A dream of a different sort -- a dream of revenge -- is the focus of Mr. Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," the second half of the double bill of one-acts currently receiving their comic due at the Spotlighters Theatre, under the direction of Tom Blair.
Although written merely as a curtain-raiser for the heavier "Sister Mary," "The Actor's Nightmare" is a theater lover's delight. When Tom Seibert makes his bewildered entrance, he might be any one of us, pulled on stage unexpectedly. The pinnacle of his naturalistic performance is reached when he ends up in the spotlight, apparently expected to deliver one of Hamlet's soliloquies. Unable to remember anything more than "To be or not to be," he begins reciting everything he memorized in school, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the alphabet.
Mr. Seibert's co-stars are amusing, though somewhat less comfortable with the material. Still, Anne B. Mulligan is properly haughty as his leading lady in a series of plays that change with alarming speed from Noel Coward to Shakespeare; and Christine LaGana, who appears opposite him in a Beckett-like play, is a hoot reciting all of her stage directions -- "pause, pause . . . rolls her eyes upward," etc. -- in a thick New York accent.
Ms. Mulligan's haughtiness in the first one-act is nothing compared to her out-and-out bullying as Sister Mary, a dangerously dogmatic parochial school nun. With a smile as firm as granite, this sweet-voiced sister says the nastiest things, such as bemoaning the fact that the church no longer preserves boys' soprano voices by creating castrati.
No wonder four of her students, now grown, have hated her all of their lives and decide to pay her a visit, demonstrating the damage her reactionary viewpoints have wrought. Marcie Caplan strong as the former student who harbors the greatest grudge. And, as a little boy currently under Sister Mary's sway, third-grader Garrett Keenan Neal delivers an impressively assured performance.
A far blacker comedy than "The Actor's Nightmare," "Sister Mary" has a history of attracting protests. However, it's not so much a stab at extremism in the church as it is a stab at the dangers of extremism anywhere. Appropriately, it adopts extremes to expose extremes, and it is extremely funny.
"The Actor's Nightmare" and "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" continue at the Spot- lighters Theatre weekends through March 31; call 752-1225.