Soul Music

A floozy, preparing to host a cocktail party she's not at all ready for, nervously rehearses the social niceties she plans for one of her guests, a writer: "I love your books, I just read the new one, I mean, I just bought the new one, but -- I lent it, what a great title, I loved it, I love your new book, what's it called? What I love, Alice, what I really really love about your books are the covers, I always judge a book by its cover, don't you? No, seriously, I love the way you weave all the different strands together, all the different people in different places doing different things, it's like modern music. How is it like modern music? ... I don't know."

The floozy might not know, but playwright Craig Lucas does. In his lyrical 1984 work Blue Window, Lucas makes beautiful music out of words. Literally. Through conversational overlaps, thematic variations, rhythmic diction, psychological fugues and contrapuntal asides, Lucas expands the limits of traditional playwrighting to create a sort of talking musical, one in which orchestrated applications of speech infuse words with meaning behind -- or beyond -- what's actually said. Bold and fine-toned, Blue Window is as expressive as an aria and as intricate as a symphony. Because what Lucas does is compose right in front of our eyes -- and ears.

Though Lucas is best known for his dark fable Prelude to a Kiss, Blue Window is the more accomplished play, for it's as much about language and metaphysics as it is about love. Less ethereal than Tennessee Williams and more humane than David Mamet -- the two American playwrights most identified with the lyricism of language -- Lucas, in the melancholic romantic comedy of Blue Window, presents us with seven needy souls who desperately want their hearts to sing but who can't find anyone to listen. The play consists of three successive (i.e., no intermissions) scenes, or movements. The first occurs in the characters' five New York apartments, the action unfolding simultaneously as everyone prepares for the floozy's party. The second scene is the party itself. And the third returns us to four of the five apartments, with the action again unfolding simultaneously.

The people we meet aren't what makes Blue Window so special, though the characters are appealing. And their love stories, poignant as they may be, aren't the captivating element either. Rather, it's what they say that enchants. And how they communicate. And when.

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A writer can't express her feelings to her lover, a family therapist who prepares for a trip to Italy by playing language tapes; an invitee wonders who'll attend the party while the hostess fumbles with place cards; a musician writes melodies but stumbles with words, while his girlfriend reveals herself to us in a monologued song; "sorry" is spoken at the same time for different reasons in different apartments. The flow of the words gathers us up and carries us along to the meaning of the phrase "blue window": free fall and consciousness. And through the score of feelings we're privy to on this evening -- a Sunday, not at all a festive night for parties -- the play's somber message that our individual notes ring out on deaf ears is given a delicate lilt.

There are three reasons Curtain Theater's production of Blue Window is a must-see (or must-hear): Ramona Floyd, Lise Liddell and especially Jackson Gay, all of whom give some of the most assured performances I've seen this season. Floyd's family therapist is equal parts sarcasm and intellect, cynicism and hope: she's a "broad" when she wants to be and a "dame" when she has to be, all the while betraying a certain wistfulness that experience has welded onto her social armor. As "just" a secretary who hates talking about work on her day off, Liddell radiates both sensual yearning and numbed frustration, both a palpable dissatisfaction with men and unhappiness with herself. Gay's party hostess, a ditz in a tizzy, is even more memorable. With a Betty Boopish drawl and bouncing eyebrows, Gay has fun with the sort of person who, when breaking a capped tooth trying to open a caviar bottle, can only think to cover her mouth and announce that she has an itch. The character, though, is not to be taken lightly, and Gay fills her with a pathos as tragic as her slowly revealed past.

These three more than compensate for the other actors, two of whom are bland, two of whom must be singled out for excess: Adrianne E. Atchley is too much in love with her own voice playing a writer too much in love with hers, and Fred Shipman hams up a wild-and-crazy guy to such a degree that he comes off as what I can only call Steve Buscemi on a bad day. Director Blake Newman seems to recognize the weak links and, when possible, diverts attention from them by taking them off-stage or positioning them discreetly in the background. His timing is best in the downbeat moments, and though he occasionally misses opportunities for connections, the text's artistry is still apparent. His biggest oversight is using an imposing, medieval-looking set when what's called for is something more austere and sterile.

"I wish everybody had a little window," says one of the play's characters, "so you wouldn't always have to wonder. You could just see." We do see in Blue Window, and hear, and hear again, in new ways. The play is a marvel; so too is Curtains' production. Go.

Blue Window runs through November 10 at Curtains Theater, 3722 Washington Avenue. 862-4548.

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