Odd Couple

Rosemary, the gun-slinging butch security guard from Pennell Somsen's one-act script One Tit, A Dyke & Gin doesn't like being called a lesbian. "Lesbian always sounds like you got to go to college to be one," she says. The straight-talking Brooklyn native prefers being called a dyke. Louise, on the other hand, is one of those rarefied, wealthy divorcées from Sutton Place; she shops at the fancy Fifth Avenue Bergdorf's, stays at the Plaza and is aghast at such crude labels. She also recently underwent a mastectomy. So what would these two opposites do if they were trapped together in an Upper East Side doctor's office for a long winter's night? They'd play gin -- of course. Absurd premise and silly title notwithstanding, the Theatre New West production of this compact show, directed by Joe Watts, is surprisingly appealing.

A great deal of labor goes into the setup: There's a forgetful nurse who's more interested in cruising the bars than doing her job. And poor Louise (Josephine John), who has come for a post-op examination only to be neglected by the randy nurse. She gets locked in when the building gets locked up. She's discovered by a guard, Rosemary (Claire Hart-Palumbo), who wields a semiautomatic. Louise stands there, hands in the air, wearing only her patient gown because her clothes, coat and pocketbook have been sealed in the office, a space to which Rosemary has no access. All this setup stretches the imagination almost to the breaking point, but John and Hart-Palumbo manage to keep it together. On a recent Friday-night performance, they even wiggled through some technical difficulties with a great deal of grace.

In fact, the production's success is owing to the depth and charm of the cast, whose performances are remarkably strong given the weaknesses of Somsen's script. Hart-Palumbo's Rosemary is a tough talker: "I'm a dyke," she says to Louise with a so-what shrug of her shoulders, and "you're missing a tit." She struts in her starched uniform like she owns the place and shuffles cards like a shark. Somehow, though, Hart-Palumbo finds something original in the stereotype. When Louise suggests they break down the door to the office so that she might retrieve her belongings, the lioness Rosemary suddenly turns into a mouse. Her voice trills up an octave when she squeals no, obviously worried about her job. More than a dyke, in Hart-Palumbo's capable hands Rosemary becomes a character with complexity, heart and charm.

John's Louise is also a quixotic mix of qualities. Wily, willful and sweetly tender, the socialite tries to find some common ground. She sizes up Rosemary with a quizzical eye, purring, "I'm trying to decide if you're a fall or a winter; I'm sure you're not a spring or a summer." Again, even though these lines sound like they've been ripped from a network TV script, the warm, almost musical tenor of John's voice makes such inanity come off as well-intentioned kindness. This actress also has the sort of mature beauty that makes her face wonderfully watchable. Louise holds her pretty, privileged nose in the air as talks on about the Plaza, Lancôme makeup and her fur coat. But when it comes to gin, she sits like a man and barks out, "Deal, dyke."

Predictably, over the course of the night, Louise and Rosemary discover they have things in common, like passing judgment on people. "I can't identify. I just don't understand," says Louise to gay Rosemary. The reversal comes much later when Rosemary, who doesn't like rich people, says to Louise, "I don't understand you people. I don't understand your lifestyle." There is nothing new in these ideas, but the charming way in which they are delivered make them well worth hearing again.

Unfortunately, Lisa Shipley's The Bathtub opens this pair of one-acts. Short, silly and sophomoric, the script isn't much more than a monologue delivered by Joyce (Mary Hooper). This is an annoying character who has climbed in the bathtub and refuses to leave. For two weeks she's been in there, naked and wet, whining about all sorts of things, including her girlfriend's lack of "heroic self-doubt," her own breasts and the fact that she wants to lose all sense of time.

The script feels like a writing exercise on postmodern narcissism. And there's little in this production to counter the stilted writing. It's difficult to understand why the two scripts have been paired; the second production is charming enough to merit a night of theater all by itself.

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Lee Williams