Wasserstein one-acts

THEATER

January 29, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Wendy Wasserstein has been described as one of the voices of her generation, so it's not surprising that, in middle age, this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is creating protagonists who are bright, accomplished, middle-aged women - the type of characters other writers often relegate to supporting-role status.

It is surprising, however, not to mention impressive, that a small professional Washington theater, Theater J, has landed the world premiere of a pair of Wasserstein one-acts: Welcome to My Rash, which received developmental readings at two major Washington theaters (Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center), and Third, written specifically for Theater J.

Both works concern established, respected women who undergo experiences that change their perceptions of themselves and, presumably, the course of their lives. The more effective of the two is Third, which, like David Mamet's Oleanna, focuses on a conflict between a college professor and student. In Wasserstein's script, however, the issue is plagiarism, not sexual harassment.

Kathryn Grody portrays a politically correct feminist English professor named Laurie Jameson who sees herself as an open-minded iconoclast (her interpretation of King Lear concludes that seemingly selfish Goneril and Regan were right).

A defender of the marginalized, Laurie discovers she holds prejudices she never imagined after a student on a wrestling scholarship (played with assurance and affability by Edward Boroevich) turns in a paper that exhibits insights and intelligence beyond what Laurie believes to be a jock's capabilities.

Although the reconciliation at the end is too pat, the student - nicknamed "Third" - is such a wonderfully intriguing stereotype-smasher, and his sparring sessions with Laurie send off so many intellectual sparks, that even the professor's propensity for jargon can't impede the play's energy.

Welcome to My Rash is more complex, ambitious and imaginative. But due partly to the fragmented production mounted by young director Michael Barakiva (who staged both one-acts), it never quite coalesces into a satisfying whole.

This time, Grody plays a writer named Flora Berman, who is suffering from a bizarre and increasingly debilitating set of symptoms. We meet her on her first visit to a specialist named Dr. Kipling Varajan (Bill Grimmette), who prescribes a rigorous experimental treatment.

Wasserstein doesn't provide enough background to explain why Flora agrees so readily to this aggressive regimen (especially since she claims to suffer from "chronic white coat syndrome" - a fear of doctors). But in Dr. Varajan, Wasserstein has created one of the most cheerful, highly cultured and literate physicians imaginable, and his treatment eventually does as much for Flora's spirit as for her ailing body.

The most distinctive element of Welcome to My Rash is Flora's Demerol-induced hallucinations, each involving Cupid and Psyche, along with Dr. Varajan in the guise of a rabbi. Barakiva's direction makes the transitions between real and surreal overly choppy, but the fantasy sequences still succeed in illuminating the central theme: That opening yourself up to knowledge and experience - as Psyche does by taking a forbidden look at her beloved - is worth the risk of pain.

The playwright presents her lead actress with a tough acting challenge - one of Flora's symptoms is a paralyzed upper lip. Grody manages to enunciate clearly nonetheless, but she also makes this idiosyncratic character seem like such a passively quirky, well, kook, that it's difficult to fully sympathize with her.

The one-acts are linked not only by Grody's performances but also by certain shared references, the most amusing of which is the discovery that Laurie and Flora are friends. And, despite their thematic weight, the plays are brimming with smart dialogue, humor, wit and, in Rash, comical pop music references. At this stage, the two pieces still seem somewhat underdeveloped, but even so, they offer an interesting window into the growth and concerns of a segment of America's middle-aged women - including the playwright herself.

Theater J performs at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., N.W., Washington. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Saturdays; matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 15. Tickets are $18-$35. For more information, call 1-800-494-TIXS.

Shakespeare news

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has news on two fronts. First, the festival has inaugurated a new series of staged readings called Shakespeare Sundays. Using the text from Shakespeare's First Folio, the readings offer a chance to contrast the original 1623 published text with "modern cuttings and interpretations," according to artistic director James Kinstle.

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