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By choosing the title Snatches for her truncated and spliced version of the infamous Linda Tripp-Monica Lewinsky telephone tapes, writer-director Laura Strausfeld has shot herself in the foot. Whether it's a fatal wound or just a graze will depend on ticket buyers' willingness to ignore the title's eye-popping vulgarity and go see what Strausfeld is up to in spite of the lapse.

If Strausfeld is lucky, word will get around that she's crafted an extremely clever, 70-minute performance piece from the betrayal of a foolish innocent by a conniving older woman who never examines her motives.

Indeed, Strausfeld has been shrewd about what she's excerpted from the many hours of Tripp-Lewinsky chats, all of them taped without the naïve Monica's knowledge. In them, of course, she hears what the rest of us hear about Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton, but she also rather astutely picks up on something else: the exchanges of truisms and bromides that mark women's conversation when they are ostensibly pursuing intimacy. Girls may want to have fun, Strausfeld points out, using a script relying entirely on verbatim dialogue from the tapes, but they often don't succeed. What little solace they might find is in parsing among themselves the reasons why their attempts have failed.

This scathing playlet is like a fleshed-out version of a cynical La Rochefoucauld maxim---the one about how it's not enough for us to succeed, but our friends must also fail in order to make us feel good. The playwright-director illustrates this idea by deploying Jean Taylor as Lewinsky and Patricia A. Chilsen as Tripp. At no time do either of them, in big wigs and leotards, simply come out and talk like regular human beings. Rather, in segments dubbed "Blow" (supra-titles appear throughout the proceedings), the two sit on adjustable stools with their backs to the audience. During segments called "Job," they disport themselves in a slightly more complex setting that features a round table, a chair, and an Ikea-like sofa. Tripp and Lewinsky never sit in a standard, upright position; the furniture is always turned upside down or sideways, and so Taylor and Chilsen are always seated at odd angles in relation to the audience. While reciting their lines in these unnatural positions, they gesticulate theatrically. Their hands, often holding cigarettes, wipe the air. Their feet jiggle, their heads bob. The metaphor is clear: This relationship is off-balance, out of whack.

Taylor and Chilsen, their faces rarely seen straight on so that their resemblance to the actual figures is of secondary importance, are abetted by Edward Connors and Jonathan Lopez. Identified in the program as, respectively, Monica's stylist and Linda's stylist, these limber men in black often move in a mirror-image fashion that emphasizes the stylized conventions of Strausfeld's work. They execute their choreography with deliberate grandiosity, primping as if they were nothing less than Washington, D.C.'s most prominent hairdressers. When not adjusting a flip here and a bang there, they escort Tripp and Lewinsky to and from the two main playing areas. Finished with their duties for the moment, they each assume a footman's detached stance.

The presence of the stylists underlines Strausfeld's not-so-amused suspicion that hair and its grooming, and by extension the trivia of most lives, is too much of what occupies women. Her idea is that women's concern with how they look, and how they are perceived by friends and the rest of the world, is a destructive force. Pointing out that women can be overly concerned with appearance is not a fresh notion (and one unlikely to please crusading feminists, if any remain) but one that the author has found a canny way of expressing again.

The Tripp-Lewinsky tapes provide incontrovertible evidence that friendships among women are fraught with complex dynamics. Snatches is like Sex and the City viewed and skewed. The final scene--wherein Tripp, dressed in a suit and wired for her government mission, interviews a mini-skirted Lewinsky--is like a horrible cartoon of one friend destroying another for no commendable reason whatsoever. "Stop whispering, I can't hear you," Tripp admonishes crossly when she's worried that Lewinsky's soft voice won't be caught on tape. "I was brought up with lies," Lewinsky says melodramatically, perhaps explaining why she's as screwed up and unhappy as she is.

Along with the many projections that announce "Blow" and "Job" and indicate dates and times, other information is provided throughout the piece. The fact that Lewinsky is now enjoined from seeing a certain D.C. hairbender is only the most laughable and disturbing of various results of the Clinton-Lewinsky pants dance. Also, certain Do's and Don'ts are posted; for one, it's advisable for a contemporary female to have "a definite style, but not necessarily all the time." (By the way, the contrived but cute "Blow" and "Job" joke is the only allusion in the play to any explicit sexual activity indulged in by Lewinsky, who now designs pocketbooks, and the former President, who's now encouraging benefactors of various causes to empty their pocketbooks.)

The basically well-scrubbed nature of Strausfeld's work makes it even more puzzling why she's chosen such an off-putting title. Her work is as an intelligent, idiosyncratic response to one of American history's shabbiest footnotes. Why didn't she just call it Snitches?

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