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This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: George Street Playhouse

The suspension of disbelief is something theatergoers know all about. But have you ever sat in a darkened theater on a blustery fall night, watching characters clad in J. Crew preppy coordinates, and yet had the sensation of being seated in a stone amphitheater on a sun-drenched afternoon in ancient, pre-classic Greece?

This is the transformation A.R. Gurney has concocted in his one-act comic drama, "The Guest Lecturer," which opened last week at George Street Playhouse. Cleverly paired on a twin-bill with a dark opening companion piece, "Darlene," "The Guest Lecturer" takes its audience from a polite auditorium somewhere in middle America right back to the savage Dionysian rites that gave birth to theater -- and makes us, its late-20th century audience, complicit in the act.

Although the play's premise may sound a bit heady, this is far from a glum academic exercise. It's pure comedy. From the slapstick entrance of the homely accompanist Pat (Mary Ehlinger), who ensconces herself on-stage to tickle the ivories of a battered upright piano, to such tasteless one-liners as, "I only regret I have two balls to give to the American theater," Gurney has launched another well-honed script that is surely destined for regional theaters everywhere. Top-notch performances by Nancy Opel as Mona, and Robert Stanton as the guest lecturer, make this world-premiere production a worthy follow-up to George Street's comic season-opener, "After-Play."

The play's setting -- a dreary auditorium draped with blue velvet curtains and flanked by the requisite pair of flags -- could not be further from an ancient Greek hillside. Yet as the plot unfolds, we are drawn into a vortex of confession and community spectacle that is as old a human society; and Gurney milks every parallel between ourselves and Mona Hammersmith's hungry subscribers.

Mona is artistic director of a marginal community theater that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother before her, a theater that was on the verge of collapse until the founding of the unexpectedly popular annual guest lecture series that has swelled the subscriber base to its present comfortable dimensions.

All is not well, however. And on her entrance, Mona immediately addresses the audience with her concerns about the theatrical rites that are in store. Her authority is quickly preempted, however, by Fred (robustly played by Rex Robbins), head of the theater's board of trustees. (With his gray hair and impeccable three-piece suit, Fred is indistinguishable from the bona fide board members who actually peppered the George Street opening-night audience.) As a trustee and a community leader, Fred -- a pragmatist who has come to believe that the end justifies the means -- insists that the guest lectureship proceed as scheduled.

This is the cue for the well-scrubbed and gangly Hartley, a graduate student from Ohio, to join Mona on-stage and begin his carefully-prepared (on 3-by-5 cards) lecture on "The Future of American Drama." Without giving away Gurney's hand, let it only be said that, as the quaint lectureship unfolds -- itself a throwback to the 19th-century Women's Club lecture circuit -- we come to learn how the three dramatic unities with which Western audiences are intimately familiar, have a startling primitive parentage: murder, castration, and cannibalism.

Robert Stanton plays his part to perfection. Adopting a Jimmy Stewart persona, we watch him involuntarily rise from his assigned seat, propelled simply by his enthusiasm for an idea or an argument. And the task that he sets himself -- to singlehandedly turn back the tide of this community's hunger for good drama -- is in itself reminiscent of the challenge Stewart's characters always relished. With its obligatory Shakespearean finale, dollop of musical theater, and "corker of a recognition scene," Gurney's "birth of tragedy" should offer a catharsis of sorts to even the most jaded theatergoer.

Just as witty, yet more somber in its denouement, is "Darlene," the opening one-act that chronicles an afternoon in the life of a suburban wife and mother. Actors Opel and Stanton are cleverly paired here as Angela and Jim, a mid-life couple, parents of maturing teens, who are just beginning to recognize the contours of their life ahead. While Jim is the oblivious one, caught up in the perils of a dwindling job and comforted by his daily habits, Angela is probing and dissatisfied with her sense of the future. "Centrifugal force is pulling us apart," she tells her clueless spouse. "We're in different orbits, shouting at each other across greater and greater distances." Just how far Angela will go to shake up her comfortable existence remains an open question.

-- Nicole Plett

Darlene & the Guest Lecturer, George Street Playhouse , 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $36. To Saturday, November 21.


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