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A Play on Words

Brian Dykstra's witty play about a pair of argumentative sticklers is fierce and funny. logo
Brian Dykstra and Mark Boyett in A Play on Words
(© Dave Burbank)
Whereas some suburban men might confine their debates to the relative merits of sports teams, in Brian Dykstra's witty (and wittily titled) A Play on Words, now being presented as part of the Americas Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theatres, Max (Dykstra) and Rusty (Mark Boyett) tussle over such issues as the implications of "insinuate" vs. "intimate," the origin of the expression "not give a hang," and the commercial history of grog.

Fortunately for us, these argumentative sticklers' frequent set-tos are no less fierce -- or funny -- for being so abstruse and picayune. These two wield recondite notions the way cavemen once brandished their clubs. And like many a topdog/underdog duo before them -- Abbott and Costello, Hardy and Laurel, Gleason and Carney -- they continually sow doubt as to who's really the smarter. While the snide, condescending Max never lets up on his assumption of intellectual superiority, it's great fun to see Rusty (whom Boyett endows with a Howdy Doody geniality) get some licks in.

Rusty happens upon Max sitting in his yard, contemplating a blank piece of posterboard. Something is up, but it takes a solid half of the 90-minute play for Rusty to wrest the truth from aggressively obstructionist Max. Detours include Rusty's imaginatively enacted exegesis on what exactly a "hang" might consist of, Max trying to physicalize the incompatibility of the terms "often" and "whenever," and an especially heated discussion concerning the question of whether it's possible to think about nothing. It would be unfair to divulge the nature of the project that they end up collaborating on -- except perhaps to say that it has the makings of a hilarious new parlor game.

Under Margarett Perry's direction, the show's pace is almost dizzying. And silly as much of the material is -- at one point, the guys try to deconstruct a McDonald's jingle recalled from childhood -- it nevertheless has a certain resonance. Even in the age of Google, arguing proves a quintessentially human pastime.

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