Lonely, Times Three

Stages Repertory Theatre has fixed its attention on a little jewel of a play, Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings, and ended up with an elegant evening of theater that would serve well as a model for the company's future. Directed by Mark Ramont (formerly of New York City's Circle Repertory Company), this production is both light on its feet and weighty with relevance -- a three-part comic sonnet on grief's balance between warm memory and the pain of being left behind.

A relatively new playwright, Hatcher premiered Three Viewings at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1995, and his voice is a fresh take on a well-established performance ritual: that of storytelling. In Three Viewings, a trio of characters -- Emil, Mac and Virginia -- are seen one by one at a funeral parlor, where in long monologues they tell stories about themselves and their dearly departeds. The result is something like Spoon River Anthology jumping into your living room. Emil, the director of the funeral home, tells his story of blushing love first, building the framework of his smallish town and its people for the play's next two sections. Emil's story highlights the pain and the humor in missed moments of human contact, a theme that's carried through the play in a variety of bittersweet notes.

While Stages has just hit its stride in terms of the works it chooses -- and variety seems to be the key -- there is a particular set of theatrical conventions audiences are becoming accustomed to at the theater off Allen Parkway: clean, sparse design; fine actors; and innovative direction. All that is present in Three Viewings, but what makes the play particularly worthwhile is the subtle, and often comic, connections drawn between its characters -- a married man in love with another woman, a bisexual, bipolar suicide survivor and a well-to-do widow -- and their different lives.

As the funeral home director, James Belcher gives us another of his deftly comic performances, tempting his would-be lover to turn around as he whispers "I love you" from across the room and setting up business deals for her in the hope she'll realize how much he adores her. As Mac, the suicide survivor, Deborah Hope is saucily determined. Her wry humor -- "I'm not married anymore," she tells us, "my husband never fixed the kitchen door" -- provides a thin veil for her despair and leads the way to the evening's best treat, Jean Proctor as Virginia, the nattily posed widow of a wheeling and dealing businessman who left her with a mountain of debt.

Each actor moves around the sofa in the funeral parlor's waiting room, outlining the history of his or her life with their particular deceased, and at the same time defining themselves in a world where they've lost a lover, a husband or a grandmother. Without their having to mention it, it's possible to see each character's interminable period of grief -- the waiting, the talking, the eating -- and realize how the smallest details loom large in order to fill up time. While Hope prowls around and on top of the sofa to detail her wild stories, Belcher stands beside it, occasionally ducking into a floral arrangement, while Proctor simply sits on it, poised and collected. The detail in their movement, and their lack of histrionic flailing, is a perfect example of what's right about this production -- their actions are small, but significant.

Proctor's monologue, titled "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti," is the play's coda -- Hatcher's careful webbing of time, place and circumstance join to provide Virginia reasons to doubt everything about her late husband. A perfect blend of naivete and cynical resolve, Proctor gives a stoically comic performance, one that more than embodies the play's premise: Grief offers its victims the opportunity to reconcile petty disagreements with fond memory.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its subject matter, Three Viewings is often quite humorous. People do funny things under the pressure of grief, and Hatcher's characters are deftly drawn to illustrate such things, which makes their stories all the more meaningful. When Emil happens to mention his marital status, the revelation comes as a surprise because we feel we know him; Mac's tragic explanation of why her family is missing is a powerful, well-placed blow laced with her characteristic humor; and Virginia's surprise ending is as gentle and sweet as she is gravelly.

In a perfectly wrought production, craft becomes invisible -- as it is here. Matthew Richards's lighting design is tailored to the emotional barometer of each scene, and the simplicity of each character alone on-stage is nicely underlined by musical segues and brief blackouts that provide the actors the opportunity to change position. The combination of these elements and the play's magic are enough to send sparks through the audience, and to create an evening as absorbing as it is entertaining.

If Stages is going to regain its spot as the Alley's foremost challenger, the theater should look to this production of Three Viewings as a benchmark. It's a fine example of just how wonderful and intimate contemporary theater can be.

If three is the magic number for Stages, it's an ambitious one for Main Street Theater's production of Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, a play about three political hostages held in Lebanon. The tersely complex script is artistic director Rebecca Udden's riskiest choice this season, though one that reflects her love for intelligent drama. And as directed by Ron Jones, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me has its moments of rapture. Unfortunately, though, it never quite gels satisfactorily.

Set in a room where two, then three, prisoners are shackled to a wall, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is also about telling stories -- stories to keep sane, stories to pass the time and stories that attempt to place meaning on a meaningless existence. The play's three characters are Adam, an American physician; Edward, a Irish journalist; and Michael, an Englishman who teaches literature. They've been kidnapped and are being held in a room somewhere in Lebanon, with no explanation why and few comforts.

To keep madness at bay, Adam and Michael devise a number of games, among them shooting imaginary movies, writing imaginary letters and simply talking about home -- both the idea and the place. Michael also discusses the presence of hope in medieval literature, his field of expertise. Though he's playing arguably the least challenging character -- he is, after all, an American playing an American -- Hosea Simmons takes a while to warm up to Adam. As the Irishman, Edward is both wild and mournful, though his reading of the character lacks the consistency this production needs to hold its audience fast. Equally difficult to pin down is George Brock's Michael -- a man who so willingly gives up his firm British resolve that it's difficult to believe he's as crusty as his dialogue suggests.

The production, as is true of most of what Ron Jones supervises, looks scanty in terms of direction. Instead of an orchestrated shape, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me plays as if it was left largely up to the actors. While their imprisonment, as mysterious as it is maddening, creates several moments of confrontation and of brotherhood, Jones's version lacks the central core needed to drive McGuinness's story home.

Still, at a time when most audiences search for theatrical confection, it's nice to see a company offering politically charged theater. More than anything else, this production feels like Harold Pinter on Prozac -- which isn't a bad thing. This is especially true in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me's comic moments -- a cocktail hour, an imaginary movie with a goat-loving happy nun and, as one of the prisoners' flights of fancy, a ride in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Though Jones's occasionally inept production doesn't plumb the play's depths, the production is still a glowing light of intellectual vigor, something worth seeking in a city where ambitious, meaty productions can be hard to find.

Three Viewings plays through February 9 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220; Someone Who'll Watch Over Me plays through February 9 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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Megan Halverson