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Random Harvests

Photo by Jenny Adamson

A New York City office building just before 9/11, a Midtown bar where accountants loosen ties after work. These sky-above/mud-below locales are where most of the action takes place in Paul Mullin's The Good Ship Manhattan, a four-character look at the difficulty of romantic coupling and the inevitability of power relationships. This may be familiar ground in the theater, but Mullin (Louis Slotin Sonata) throws us off guard with some early disorienting moments, including a few brief monologues by cast members we haven't yet been introduced to, and a rambling car-to-office phone call from an accounting-firm honcho to his new temp. "So what's going on?" the boss repeatedly asks, partly to fill silences, only to get the answer, "Nothing."

The supervisor, Greg (Bart Tangredi), is a blustery, controlling gorilla who forces employees to staple and present even throwaway draft reports in a rigidly prescribed manner. Richard (Patrick Tuttle) is a temp Greg's taken a liking to. At first we're not sure just why: Does street-smart Greg wish to take the younger man under his wing? Does he find Richard, who insists on remaining a temp, a mystery to be solved? Is it a gay thing? It turns out to be none of these things. Richard quit his job as a Baltimore high school social-studies teacher because he was taking out his anger with the world on his students — he tries to keep his rebellious streak in check, but corporate New York brings it out in him even worse.

Still, Greg enjoys getting bombed with Richard at a local saloon, a democratically neutral place where rank and sobriety do not matter. This bar is also where Richard first encounters Ursula (Christy O'Keefe), a fetching waitress with a penchant for historical references and putting drunks in their place — which makes her a perfect match for the dipso Richard.

Or is she? The two soon date, but things never seem to move off the platonic dime. In fact, another title for Mullin's play might well be Sexless and the City — for all their talk about scoring and commitment, the characters seem to be in heat about as often as old pandas — the only lust comes in one comic scene, aboard an airplane, between an executive and the company-climbing Michele (Michelle Noh).

This thwarting of audience expectations is slyly funny, but it also becomes the play's main flaw because the story never really delivers on any of its vague promises. 9/11, which is hinted at through the sounds of jets and police radios, comes and goes almost like an offstage murder, a random event that gets lost in the cracks somewhere between Anne Nelson's The Guys and Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat. Nor are the intimations ever developed that the accounting firm everyone works for may be akin to the felonious Arthur Andersen outfit.

More important, while Richard is the play's obvious focus, he turns out to be a soft center — a passive cipher for whom everyone inexplicably wants to buy drinks. If anything, the loutish Greg is a more unsettling character. Crude as he is, Greg betrays genuine moments of existential bafflement, especially in a twice-delivered speech about a foreigner who's built a mansion on the lot where Greg rode a dirt bike as a child. This and other ruminations may sound more significant than they are because, as an actor, Tangredi is in such command of this caricature that he always keeps Greg human, if not humane.

The rest of director William Salyer's cast is serviceable as they work their way across Gary Smoot's spare but cleverly suggestive set consisting of three rugs, a few pieces of furniture and strings that create stage boundaries in Act 1 and come down after 9/11. That we don't immediately know what his play is about is to Mullin's credit; that we don't know after an hour is not. Even at its end we're left wondering not only what The Good Ship Manhattan meant, but whose play it was. There may be no absolutes in modern playwriting, but some fundamental structure is required, because, as Greg might say, if it ain't got wings, it's not gonna fly.

Wade McIntyre's Hors d'Oeuvres is a play whose title will tempt all of us theater critics to fill our reviews with food puns and eating references, even though his comedy is really about the impossibility of communication. I usually run to get a doctor's note when I'm assigned to a play that is "about language," but this smart little farce by the new Meadows Basement Company balances its intellectual insights with slapstick humor. Ms. Seymour (Janie Haddad) is a highbrow literary critic (the kind who doesn't rely on food puns) currying favor with a publisher in the hope of getting a book published. Her overly optimistic husband, Mr. Seymour (Ira Steck), is helping her by co-hosting a dinner party for this publisher, Mrs. Douglas (Jenni Kirk), and her husband, known, plainly enough, as the Senator (Joel Spence).

Social climbers, of course, were born to have the ladders kicked out from under them, and Ms. Seymour's troubles begin early. First, her sister Clara (Samantha Montgomery), a bewitching and afflicted young woman obsessed with language and wiping out imperfect writing, is a no-show. Instead, Charles Swinburne (Elijha Mahar), a tuxedoed man she recently met on the street, appears in her place. Named for the British poet, Swinburne immediately confounds any chance the Seymours have of generating polite small talk by answering them with insults and super-literal replies to simple questions. "Life's a non sequitur," he announces. "Deal with it!"

Swinburne also trains his jaundiced eye on the snobbish Mrs. Douglas, whom he quickly alienates toward withdrawing her consideration of Ms. Seymour's book, even as the publisher catches herself uttering more and more rude words. (Her husband's wildly inappropriate ejaculations, however, make the Senator something of a balding soprano, and Swinburne, by comparison, the epitome of plain talk.) Hors d'Oeuvres playfully makes its points about the impossibility — or at least the unacceptability — of coincidence in an ordered world, even as the plot becomes hallucinatory with the appearance of a befuddled police inspector. In the end, Swinburne, a self-proclaimed "harbinger of linguistic cataclysm" who has tried to monopolize both conversation and language itself, finds himself alone in a world literally without rhyme or reason.

McIntyre doesn't quite pull off this exercise in verbal entropy; the play gets a little too goosey in Act 2, especially when the characters begin referring to their situation as "the play." There's a fine line between the absurd and the pointless, and McIntyre's Ortonesque inspector stands firmly in the latter territory. Still, Hors d'Oeuvres is a sincere effort by an adventurous young group that I hope will take on more ambitious work in the future. Director Aaron Ginsburg is completely attuned to the text's offbeat comedy as well as its innuendoes about self-destructive dialogue, and does what he can to prevent the evening from devolving into what could have become a verbal food fight. His actors, especially the intense Montgomery, are likewise fully engaged in their characters and the anarchic dictatorship of language that McIntyre attempts to expose. But that tyranny, the playwright seems to imply, when contrasted with mindless silence, is still the lesser of two evils.

THE GOOD SHIP MANHATTAN | By PAUL MULLIN | Presented by THE SMALLER PROJECT at 2100 SQUARE FEET, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles | Through April 5

HORS d'OEUVRES | By WADE McINTYRE | Presented by MEADOWS BASEMENT at THEATRE/THEATER, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood Through April 13

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