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EST Marathon 2005: Series B logo
Grant Shaud in "Love is Deaf"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
An all-new Love, American Style show hasn't been aired since 1974, when ABC dropped the series from its primetime lineup, but playwrights -- not to mention television scribes -- have been commenting on the subject ever since. Indeed, Series B of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon 2005 has the look of an up-to-the-minute Love, American Style entry, and that's a compliment, because the series' three playwrights have each come up with a winner.

Indeed, there's a cumulative power that makes the evening one of the most gratifying Marathon entries in memory. Cherie Vogelstein, David Lindsay-Abaire, and David Mamet -- in that running order and perhaps also in that order of achievement -- have looked and listened closely to how today's lovers and would-be lovers act around each other. Their findings are astute and eye-opening.

Cherie Vogelstein's "Love is Deaf" is yet another variation on Arthur Schnitzler's famous La Ronde. Paying homage to the master chronicler of Viennese love affairs, Vogelstein gives the formula a new-millennium spin in which a love merry-go-round is boarded by six dyed-in-the-wool neurotics. After Mitch (Grant Shaud) does something drastic when dancer/waitress Annette (Shayna Ferm) throws him over, Annette discusses the event with jealous friend Lauren (Geneva Carr), who confides her amorous secret to masseur Max (Zach Shaffer, trained by massage consultant Rob Pinter), who spills the beans on his feelings to cryptic shrink Paul (Thomas Lyons), who takes his pent-up frustrations to girlfriend Janet (Ellen Maraneck), who meets the above-mentioned Mitch at Lauren's wedding.

The script mentions Woody Allen a couple of times, and Vogelstein has clearly been influenced by the Woodman. (What middle-class, white, New York comedy writer hasn't?) Allenesque lines pop up as she skewers the kind of contemporary love that's papered over layers of anger and bitterness. The savvy playwright offers an outspoken-woman point of view of the sort that has been made acceptable by the Sex and the City writing staff. Where she stumbles briefly before recovering her footing is with the analyst; maybe a moratorium is in order for stage presentations of this long-maligned figure until someone discovers a fresh slant. Still, Thomas Lyons as the uptight, answer-a-question-with-a-question authority is very funny, as are each and every one of his colleagues. They are all directed by Jamie Richards with a keen sense of pacing and a keen eye for the sight gag.

David Lindsay-Abaire usually deals in premises that are off the beaten track yet right up entertainment's alley. In "Crazy Eights," he shows us a probation officer visiting his probationee in her shabby walk-up just after midnight. Antsy Benny (Keith Reddin) claims to be checking up on hard-working Connie (Rosie Perez), who's expecting her pal Cliff (Tom Pelphrey) for their standing late-night game of Crazy Eights. Lindsay-Abaire, who knows a good eccentric when he sees one, has something to say about unpredictable attractions between the sexes, and he says it with his usual cleverness and compassion for everyday nutzos.

What Perez, Reddin, and Pelphrey bring to the piece, under Brian Mertes's sensitive direction, can't be overestimated. Reddin's execution of Benny's nervous behavior is on the money; Pelphrey's good looks and ease at playing a recovering drug addict mark him as someone to watch; and Perez's performance alone would be worth the price of admission. Her acting is always meticulously honest, and, for that reason, she's consistently appealing. Whatever she's doing, audiences go with it.

David Mamet ends a felicitious year -- thanks to the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross and the Off-Broadway production of Romance -- with a lacerating shortie titled "Home." It's about a marriage slamming so relentlessly against the rocks that the psychic wounds are visible as they furrow the participants' faces. Mamet seems to believe that rancor rules in today's marriages as he introduces Robert (Victor Slezak) and Claire (Katherine Leask). In the opening exchange, Robert complains that the coffee he drinks is too bitter and too strong; this comment signals what Mamet has in mind as he throws his protagonists into combat over their job requirements and who would get custody of their daughter should their alliance end. In three scenes that don't take much longer to play out than they do to describe, Mamet shows Robert and Claire wrangling over his career, her career, and whose career should determine where they live (if not love). The piece is minor Mamet and it has the feel of having been cranked out in a few hours, yet it's far from disposable.

Like Paddy Chayevsky and Harold Pinter, Mamet writes dialogue that seems absolutely true to how real people speak, yet it's actually stylized and is therefore a tough challenge for actors. As directed by Curt Dempster, Slezak and Leask have the playlet's biting emotions in their grasp, but their hold on the shifting rhythms of the fragmented lines isn't entirely firm yet.

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