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Subtitled "a not-so-romantic comedy of bad manners," Backseats and Bathroom Stalls aspires to raunchy abandon but instead delivers an often inspired but ultimately tepid tale of troubled hipsters playing doctor. The collected talent at the helm tackle derivative material with commitment and imbue it with moments that surprise and sparkle. But the evening eventually succumbs to a weak script.

The play opens in both locations of the title, where Village bohemians Josie (Lorijean Nichols) and Karl (Rob Mersola) are experiencing intense sexual encounters. Josie is groped by the fantastically endowed Harlan (Jason Pendergraft) as Karl receives oral sex from a stranger (Danny Ponickly) in the bathroom of a pick-up club. Once it is revealed that Karl and Josie are co-dependent roommates, the duo pursues their hearts' will--but concede to their libidos instead. Karl falls for his stranger, Charlie, a tortured closet case betrothed to a woman; Josie, tired of Harlan's indifference, allows herself to be seduced by a barfly who professes to know the secrets of the gypsy. When Charlie's fiancée discovers semen on his coat jacket, the play's characters wander off into the downtown Manhattan night like players in a soft-core porn version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Backseats and Bathroom Stalls plays like a cross between a Charles Bukowski novel and MTV's The Real World, the show that features a listless crew of debauched Gen X'ers fussing and screeching about their sexual mores as the audience gasps, "Who cares?" Not as dirty-minded as it would like to be, the play attempts to live up to its subtitle (subtitles always read like apologies, offering up the thematic point of the play in the event that you can't glean it from the play itself), but this "not-so-romantic" comedy settles for the snarky cynicism that rules today's popular culture.

Structurally, the play pursues a cinematic course, binding an evening's worth of short scenes and a madcap climax in the style of a Robert Altman movie, only much more predictable. This twisting of disparate narrative threads into a single rope can be rewarding, but the playwright hangs himself by failing to create or develop characters with any dimension. Only the effort of the talented director, Russell Dobular, and his cast makes Backseats and Bathroom Stalls worth seeing.

The record should show that the playwright in question, Rob Mersola, is a first-time scribe as well as a performer in the play. An electric and hilarious actor, he props up the weak points of his script with charismatic moxie. As a writer, he excels at the details, even though that leaves the big picture--Josie's empty obsession with how cool Harlan's name is, or Giuseppi the gypsy's tenuous grasp of palm reading--flabby. Following Mersola's lead is a cast of crackerjack actors who wring laughs from humorless stones. Mersola plays an endearing drunk and is the most likeable of the bunch; any scriptural transgressions momentarily fade whenever he pulls off a pratfall, which isn't often enough. Lorijean Nichols plays her grungy sprite character to the hilt, and Jennifer Verdon, who was wonderful in Kirkwood Bromley's little masterpiece Midnight Brainwash Revival, is given another chance to shine on The Kraine Theater's stage. The evening's best surprise is Anil Kumar as the lusty gypsy; he reminds one of a young Hank Azaria and is a treat as he steals each and every one of his scenes.

The Kraine Theater complex on East Forth Street--which includes The Red Room and has expanded to the Saint Marks Theater on Eighth Street--consistently features some of the best talent in Off-Off Broadway. It is an outstanding proving ground for up-and-coming artists as well as an excellent showcase for established talent. In this creative environment, artists are allowed to grow at a time when arts funding is buried six feet under. Backseats and Bathroom Stalls may be a misfire, but with a foundation like The Kraine under its feet, it will be a pleasure to see if the aforementioned playwright, director, and cast can hit its dramatic target next time out.

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