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The truth, unearthed

Three plays provide a glimmer of hope


I'm beginning to suspect a conspiracy. How else to explain, the week after three theatrical monuments to the lie, the emergence of two similarly challenging works in which the truth is finally unearthed--or actually three, if you're willing to tweak the term a bit.

It's a familiar maxim, taught in childhood: The truth will always come out in the end. After a century of covert operations and the current presidency's obsession with secrecy, I wish I had the faith to believe it.

I don't. We are good at hiding things, and when it becomes a condition of employment, we only get better. For most, it becomes a matter of practice in the end.

This being the case, the buried don't just magically transcend, weightless and unaided, into the light. The hardest truths only come out if they're dug for and exhumed, through manual labor and direct confrontation. It's a proposition artists as diverse as Costa-Gavras and Maguy Marin have borne witness to in their work. Playwrights Nick Stafford and Lucas Schaefer join them in Luminosity and Hangman.

In Luminosity at Playmakers Rep, Debra, a black Englishwoman adopted into an affluent white family of social activists somewhere in the West Midlands, uncovers a document in which the family's Quaker patriarch defends his involvement in the slave trade. That document--and a photograph of another ancestor, taken in South Africa--is enough to unravel the braid of this tale in which three different generations of the same family, each one century apart, are fundamentally influenced by issues involving race.

In Hangman, which closed last weekend at Duke's Branson Theater, Jackson, the young director of a university outreach program for gays and lesbians, seems at first the object of a deranged and deadly game of homophobic cat and mouse. In a darkened room, he's perched at the top of a ladder with a noose around his neck--and being forced to play the titled word game with a man who holds a flashlight on him in the dark. With each wrong guess, another step is sawed off the ladder he's standing on.

But as the words reveal clues about his interrogator's identity, an apparent hate crime is ultimately revealed to be a very pointed--and in-house--enquiry into the working ethics of gay empowerment. Though Schaefer's management of plot revelations and endgame still needs some thought, the integrity--and velocity--of the unsparing debate at its center is already comparable to the one in Jane Martin's Keely and Du. Hangman clearly deserves a future. I hope this local playwright finds it.

Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet probes the problematic relationships between writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, her famous aviator husband Charles, and novelist--and fellow aviator--Antoine de St. Exupery. This biographical work recounts, with an admirable and poetic economy, St. Exupery's documented encouragement of Anne's work--and his attempts to persuade Charles to support the defense of Europe against the Nazis in the coming Second World War.

In Duke Theater Previews' professional workshop production, Wynn Harmon fills St. Exupery with a combination of brio, audacity and taste, while John Hickok explores the cooler notes of the comparatively aloof Charles. As his wife, Anne, Caroline Patterson again inhabits a woman of considerable warmth and reserve. The depth of this young actor's work is by now apparent; at this point only her range remains in question.

In John Orlock's script, Antoine, Charles and Anne probe the differences between brotherhood and neighborhood--the quality St. Exupery believes most clearly separates Americans from Europeans. A psychoanalytical script deftly probes the darker, private motivations behind Charles' public stance of neutrality in Europe, and the dissonances in his marriage with Anne.

Though there are music stands and notebook scripts in this workshop presentation, some of the area's best acting is currently taking place on the Shaefer stage. 35,000 Feet also has a future, I'd say. If you want to say you saw it first, make tracks to Duke this weekend. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS: Ballet Hispanico in Nightclub , Duke Institute of the Arts, Page Auditorium, Saturday, April 17, $30-$20, 684-4444; Chess , N.C. Theater/Kids on Broadway, Fletcher Opera House, BTI Center, Friday-Sunday, April 16-18, $22, 831-6950; Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats , Carolina Theatre, Friday, April 16, 4:30 & 7:30 p.m., $20-$16, 560-3030; Hair , UNC DDA Studio 3, Playmakers Theater, Friday-Tuesday, April 16-20, $5, 962-7529; The Italian Lesson/Trouble in Tahiti , Long Leaf Opera, NCCU Theater, Friday-Sunday, April 16-18, $15-$10, 530-5170; The Man Who Came to Dinner , Towne Players of Garner, Garner Historic Auditorium, Friday-Saturday, through April 24, $8-$6, 779-6144; Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance, Hayti Heritage Center, Thursday, April 15, $15-$10, 683-1709; On the Rooftop with Bill Sears, Drama Circle/Flying Machine, PSI Theater, Thursday-Sunday, through April 25, $12-$8, 594-1140; Opera a la Mode, Capitol Opera Raleigh, Saturday-Sunday, April 17-18, Meredith College, 661-5150; Portraits in Black II, Front Porch Productions, Hayti Heritage Center, Friday-Sunday, through April 25, $15-$10, 683-1709; Senior Performances, Duke Dance, The Ark, Friday-Saturday, April 16-17, 660-3354; West Side Story, Hoof'n'Horn, Reynolds Theater, Duke University, Thursday-Sunday, April 15-18, $9-$7, 684-4444.

*** Waiting for Godot, Burning Coal Theater--The premise was intriguing: Take Sam Beckett's existential inquiry into those beliefs we give the power to string us along indefinitely and place it in the Mississippi Delta at the dawn of the 20th century, with an all African-American cast. Depending on what they were seeking--deliverance, social justice, economic equity--two black men at the crossroads could be in for a very long wait.

But this nervy gambit is sacrificed early when Lamont Reed and Paul Garrett's theatrical speech and heightened diction reveal characters who sound and act nothing like people from that place and time. Only Reed's blues opening in the second act, and Thaddeus Edwards' riveting first act soliloquy (as a Lucky who simultaneously channels a holy roller, a sports salesman, a culture vulture and an earnest cultural commentator) provide a hint of what an American blues Godot might have been.

The rest constitutes an entirely serviceable, surprisingly mainstream vision of Beckett's work. It's not the "radical new interpretation" the show's publicity promised, because it ultimately respects the text too much for its own good, or ours. It's easy for a director to be intimidated by Beckett, but one thing's clear: Godot should not be safe. The only times this production isn't come when Lucky is on stage. As a result, this production only tiptoes occasionally toward the precipice, before retreating to the comforts of the known. (Thursday-Sunday, through April 18. Kennedy Theater, BTI Center. $15-$12. 834-4001.)

** New Jersey, New Jersey, Transactors Improv Company--Let's hope New Jersey, New Jersey is a work in progress. Composer/playwright/director Mark Lewis' show-biz musical send-up already has a fair number of laughs, and a few moments of comic brilliance. Still, at this stage, NJ, NJ mainly resembles a plant that's outgrown the box it was potted in.

Initial encounters with a number of characters--like hapless theater naif Bruce and Mabel, his jaded hostess--are undeniably comic and rewarding. Jimmy Magoo's Bruce redefines stage fright in his memorable number, "I've Got Something," while Rachel Klem curbs Mabel's enthusiasm (but not our enjoyment) as an off-Broadway dive's emcee of the damned.

It's a good thing when these first meetings go well, since Lewis' script never develops any of his characters that much. As a result most get stuck extending the riff they started on. Clearly, NJ, NJ hasn't transcended yet the flimsy characters and stakeless situations of its improv and sketch comedy roots.

Characters that could develop, grow or change would explore Lewis' distaff dystopia a lot more fully than most of these one-notes do. High-school drama maven Miss Franklin's deal with devilish Broadway producer Rubin Drake could have taken her and us into a show biz underworld, but too many plot points like it get flipped through, not investigated.

Limited performer commitment--another sketch and improv bugaboo--also reduces this effort. Only Klem, Magoo, Andrea Maddox and Michele Easter effectively escape the familiar boilerplate we see from others on stage.

Obviously, sketch comedy techniques--and acting that never rises above that level--cannot take this project any further. We hope Lewis prunes his score by half, repots his script, develops his characters and situations, and explores NJ, NJ's considerable potential. (Thursday-Saturday, through April 17. Carrboro ArtsCenter. $9-$15. 929-2787.)

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