Dumb and Dumber

The Nerd and Ten by Ten do little to liven up the season

What begins with promise in Total ends with bombast. The father begins to sound like a disgruntled professor at a lectern, and the daughter is virtually forgotten. Metaphors can be tricky in short pieces, but Smith at least does her audience the courtesy of not smacking them over the head with hers: the sun has been eclipsed for a few brief moments, and so has the father's sense of redemption. Despite its leanings toward a discourse on capital punishment, Total is a fairly well-conceived package.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the second play worth staying in your seat for ends the production's first half. Always head into intermission with a punch, they tell you in theater school, and the evening's producers have at least attempted that with Mary Elaine Lora's Animal Instincts, which concerns a lawyer and her boyfriend in the bedroom of a rent-controlled New York apartment. The lights come up on the boyfriend's disgusted uttering about the lawyer's cat. It's not a particularly inventive premise, but Lora's command of dialogue makes it an interesting one. Susan-the-lawyer (Ellen Suits) tries to persuade her beau (John Platt) that the cat, cleverly named "Kitty," is really his pet. One of the wonderful things about a little play such as Animal Instincts is that it demands that the audience participate in the absurdity of an argument over an obviously stuffed animal. When Platt complains that Kitty licks him, and that he finds this appalling, the audience is caught up in believing that the county-fair toy could indeed suddenly reach out and stick her gravelly tongue on Platt's ankle. The tension in the argument, however, runs out of steam. Boyfriend asks Susan to leave, she throws around some legalese about "tacit contracts" and the play ends abruptly, though not quite as abruptly as my patience.

Of the remaining plays (if "play" isn't too kind a term for skits that made me wish for a vaudeville hook), Norman Moise's We're Never Alone at least grapples with a shadow of psychology. Set in a foxhole, the action follows the buddy-familiarity that's encouraged by dodging bullets and mortar fire. Kid, played by David Dubowy, happens upon soldiers Jim (Colin Morgan) and Mac (Lew Temple) during an enemy blitz. Their foxhole isn't a bad place to end up, given that Mac is an entertaining kind of guy and Jim has a comforting sense of wisdom. Kid is best described as earnest (he carries a picture of his girl in his breast pocket), and Dubowy plays him with shiny hopefulness. Temple is endearing as Mac, the guy who can't wait to get back to Philadelphia and have a cold beer and a bowl of real chili, and as Jim, Morgan plays the perfect balance between the two other characters. The three form a bond, and the ensuing dialogue is often witty and genuine. Moise's play is touching, but again, the clumsy ending convinces me that ten minutes is not a fair test of anyone's ability to craft a story.

Of course, these are new plays, as the program and the smarmy preshow comments kept emphasizing, plays that are being developed. Too bad Scriptwriters didn't encourage new writers to write for the theater instead of for ten minutes.

The Nerd plays through July 28 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

Ten by Ten 1996 plays through July 20 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 707-5194.

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