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Wins and Losses

Guys and Dolls gets a respectful revival, while Our Town is sent to its grave

Occasionally, as in his other productions (Media Darlings and Steak!), Berner's wit runs out, especially in his renaming of Wilder's familiar characters. Emily Webb is referred to as Emily Cobweb, and Henry, played by Berner, becomes a strange amalgam of that name, film director George Lucas and professed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas that keeps changing throughout the play.

With ten actors playing 52 characters, the show moves along at a manic pace. Set in the same small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, as Wilder's play, Not Our Town sets out to spoil all Our Town's homespun sweetness: people hate each other, crime is rampant, sex is boldly discussed and religion holds as much weight as a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Just for chuckles, Berner plays the dead Wilder, dragged out of his grave in the play's first scene. The move sets the stage for the rocket-fire slapstick that's Berner's trademark. It's also fair warning of the level of comedy that marks the production.

In many ways, Wilder's Our Town is the kind of play that begs to be made fun of -- nobody ever leaves Grover's Corners. Indeed, the worst thing that happens is that a person dies and gets to spend eternity looking out over the bluff. Not so in this version. Emily bears nine children out of wedlock, Henry develops a blood fetish and Doc Gibbs seeks sexual healing with a hole in a fence. Too often, though, what should have been left out isn't, and the audience is left to endure sight gags such as Ma Webb pretending to stab an imaginary live chicken and then taking a bite before announcing, "It doesn't taste done." Ugh.

There's no thread tying Not Our Town together, except for the dead Thornton Wilder, who occasionally rises and moans, and a string of acknowledgments about how bad the gags are. The one truly fresh moment, in which two furniture kings duel it out for supremacy, stems not from Wilder's play but from Berner's grand sense of popular culture. As with any tight comedy troupe, there are inspired character performances from the cast, especially Bob Morgan as the chain-smoking Stage Manager and Paul Drake as the blind mailman, God, big-wigged Reverend Swagger, mime and ballet dancer.

Recently named the Pretentious Bosom Clutching Theater Company, Berner's troupe aims for outrageousness, and generally hits the mark. Too often, though, the jokes trail off into a pit of punning and spectacle. Berner is at his best, it seems, when he works from his own source material or finds a script wacky enough to match his own talents. Despite Not Our Town's big delivery on outrageousness, Pretentious Bosom can, and should, do better.

Guys and Dolls plays through October 17 at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 524-2932.

Not Our Town plays through October 19 atthe Zocalo Theatre Compound,5223 Feagan,541-1242.

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