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Form follows theme in Manbites Dog's Seventy Scenes of Halloween revival

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Form follows theme, if not exactly function, in Manbites Dog Theater's Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a revival of the company's inaugural production in December 1987. Playwright Jeffrey M. Jones (whose surreal, rewarding Tomorrowland was staged by Manbites Dog in 2002) ponders exactly how long a relationship can remain viable as a series of supposedly stabilizing elements are called into question or removed.

In response to the script's challenges, co-directors Akiva Fox and Adam Sobsey appear to have asked just how many traditional dramatic components can be subtracted from a production before the result no longer qualifies as theater. It's a daring, admirably high-risk question—particularly so for Sobsey, who has closely reviewed a number of theater productions over the years in these pages and at The News & Observer. As playwright and directors clearly deconstruct most of the trappings of drama, linearity of plot, costumes, scene, set and suspension of disbelief are sequentially dismantled, in what all but qualifies as a theatrical version of Jenga.

But instead of the deft, finely calculated subtractions called for in such an experiment, a fumbling second-night run revealed the one element that clearly can't be toyed with in such a production: adequate rehearsal. As actors earnestly, audibly conferred backstage between some sequences and called for a scene start-over (neither included in Jones' script), we wondered how much of this show's fall-apart aesthetic was actually intentional.

Emily Hill and Dan VanHoozer make central characters Joan and Jeff a likeable-enough couple who've apparently spent much of their relationship under the light hypnosis of the family television. But as the evening unfolds, Carl Martin and newcomer Amber Wood present a portfolio of characters including bratty trick or treaters, clueless neighbors and, finally, alter egos reflecting Joan and Jeff's own deep-seated phobias and desires.

Jones deserves credit for an ambitious script that probes how easily we become the ghosts—and monsters—in our own relationships. With more rehearsal, this production may yet do it justice. Here's hoping.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Season's greetings and hellish holidays."

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