The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska

If we’re to believe playwright Mat Smart, which is probably not a good idea, the bloody rampage of a jealous lover in 1894 Columbus, Nebraska, led to the “Morgan Morality Act,” stipulating that if a woman chose a fiancé over the objections of a former lover who had taken her virginity, her first lover was entitled to challenge her fiancé in a public debate, sort of like a cross between The Dating Game and The Jerry Springer Show. After hearing arguments from both parties, the woman was free to choose her future mate. If the woman continued to rebuke the challenger, the law forbade him from contacting her or to mention her name in public. This anti-stalking bill placed profound confidence in the power of debate, in general, and argumentation, in particular, to prevent corpses from piling up, as they evidently did in 1894 Nebraska, at least according to the record cited in Smart’s play. In Act 1 of his delightful comedy, set in a contemporary Nebraska tavern — here portrayed in the site-specific environs of downtown’s Metropol Café — Smart is really grappling with the intersection of commitment and ownership. Jeff Galfer, who originated the role at New York’s Slant Theatre Project, is both horrifying and endearing as Scott P. Scooner, a snazzily dressed local denizen whose dream of making it big consists of landing the assistant-manager post at the suit shop where he now works as a salesclerk. Scooner is a romantic extrovert with a history of suicide attempts after having lost his love, Courtney (Amy Ellenberger, nicely capturing an emotional descent after floating on air) to a six-figure-salary-earning “dickwad from Sacramento” named James Alexander (Larry Heron, in a suave and smart performance). Courtney’s been dating James for two months (compared to her five-year courtship with Scooner). During the debate, Alexander offers her a vacation in the Bahamas, which only makes her swoon some more, as Scooner must endure the sight of his ex embracing and kissing his competitor while he’s trying to win her back. Thomas (Feodor Chin) gently moderates the debate in a performance of wry intelligence and absurdity, clutching a handbook on the law, which stipulates time limits and other protocol for the growingly ludicrous spectacle. After both suitors’ presentations, Courtney finds herself paralyzed by indecision, which is when the law’s more arcane articles, such as a corn-shucking competition, come into play. Act 2 flies back in time to 1894 and tracks the origins of this “morality act” via a farce with the actors in drag and impressive quick-changes. It’s a different play in a different style, which presents more of a challenge to the actors than the real-time naturalism of Act 1. It nonetheless tracks the origins of our so-called freedom, and how incapable we are of handling the responsibilities that come with it. Despite the farce’s shortcomings, Jennifer Chang stages the event, and it is an event, with a nimble touch, and Rachel Schachar’s costumes are perfect. Metropol Cafe, 923 East Third St., downtown; Sun.-Mon., 8 p.m.; through August 24. (800) 838-3006. A Chalk Repertory Theatre production.
Mondays, Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 19. Continues through Aug. 24, 2009

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