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Clever Dame

Agatha Christie dabbles in more than Black Coffee

Imagine my dismay, then, to have sat through the overwrought, bloodless and boring plays that make up the Absolute's second show, Three One Acts, an evening of works by three Houston playwrights. The first installment is Holly Hildebrand's Casket Letters, which plays like a Harlequin romance novel that's been run over by a Mack truck. Featuring the highly dysfunctional love/abuse relationship of Mary and James, the play seems to be reaching for parody. When he's not hitting Mary, James bellows about how he doesn't have any beer. When he's out of the room, Mary writes lines full of flowery sentiment and sexual metaphor that she keeps in a silk letter casket. Of this play's many flaws, perhaps the most inexplicable is why a woman such as Mary would be with James. Jennifer Black, as Mary, is suitably histrionic, but neither she nor her fellow actor, Orvis Melvin, seem to have any sense of what their relationship, or the play, is about. Imagine a trailer-trash man and an earnest freshman-English-major woman. Now put them in a room together. It doesn't work. It didn't work on-stage either.

Still, it's better than Diana Weeks' A Little Lite Larceny (Part II), the evening's low point. Set in the '70s corporate world, Larceny opens with Lynn, a young secretary who's interviewing for a position with Dave, a man who thinks dogs and potential employees should be talked to the same way. "Come in," he barks at Mary. "Close the door. Sit down." Whatever potential there may have been for dramatic tension between this smart young character and her pig of a would-be boss is destroyed by Weeks' sappy tangents. Mary didn't go to college on a scholarship because, she says, her father thought it was too much like charity; her mother died when she was young. It gets much, much worse. In the play's second scene, Lynn and her co-worker Leslie talk about sexual politics, breast cancer, alcoholism, Hitler's Germany and childbearing with no sense of direction, purpose or story. It was the longest 30 minutes I've spent in the theater in a great while. I've been more entertained watching corn grow. In fact, some corn would have greatly improved this pedantic piece.

The evening's final installment is Elizabeth Gilbert's Transmigration of Existence. The title and subject matter (Transmigration is about the culture of cancer victims; ugh) didn't give me hope, but Gilbert's bio -- she's written several plays -- did. Her one-act is cleverly fitted with devices such as a dictionary toting alter-ego for the main character, Veronica, and a sassy nurse played by Jennifer Black. Not only does Veronica have cancer, she also has the image of Jesus mysteriously inscribed somewhere in the vicinity of her cervix. This makes her hot property, and Gilbert hits the ball as far as she can, shuttling our girl around from stirrups to an audience with the Pope. Self-revelation through disease isn't a new idea, but Gilbert has the ability to play with the cards at hand: a patriarchal medical profession, a loss of self and illness as a metaphor for morality. Still, as the play winds around the developing cancer and the circus that has been made out of Veronica's cervix, there's a sense that we've been in this play before. Though it's competently written and well performed, there's nothing surprising or even particularly delightful about Transmigration. And the modified "it was all just a dream" ending is a cheap trick.

The purpose of fitting these three plays together in one evening, the program indicates, was to showcase the work of local female playwrights. Only one of three makes the cut as a dramatist, and I'm not at all convinced that Transmigration of Existence is the play that best represents Gilbert's ability. If the people behind Absolute want to produce good theater, they'd be much better off continuing in the vein of their first production rather than chasing down new work that tries to dress up contemporary issues in dramatic clothing.

Black Coffee plays through July 7 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421

Three One Acts plays through July 7 at the Absolute Theatre, 813 Richmond
Avenue, 921-7469

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