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Appealing Debut 

Beowulf Alley comes out swinging with two sharp comedies.

Its mission statement is vague, but the Beowulf Alley Theatre Company's debut production has arrived in near-perfect focus. Whatever artistic monsters these folks try to slay in the future, they draw plentiful laughs, though little blood, with two one-act comedies by James McClure. If the material isn't as cutting as it might be, that's the playwright's fault, not the production's.

Stephen Elton, long a mainstay onstage and backstage at Live Theatre Workshop, and Art Almquist, an accomplished local actor who heads Tucson High School's drama department, started pulling this company together last fall. They seem to want to put on contemporary plays by the likes of David Mamet and Edward Albee, or maybe some older plays in more innovative productions, or maybe Brigadoon, or who knows what.

They've begun with 30-year-old material that holds up well thanks to witty characterizations and smart but not self-conscious dialog. Early Sam Shepard this ain't, but for a first production it's a wise compromise between intelligence and audience appeal. Which aren't, after all, mutually exclusive.

Although the evening's second attraction, Lone Star, is a three-man play designed to run in conjunction with McClure's three-woman Laundry and Bourbon (both are set in the same town and share a marital relationship), it's here preceded by Private Wars, a quite unrelated comedy for male trio. This gives each of Beowulf Alley's actors a chance to appear in two diametrically opposed roles.

In Private Wars, Elton, who also directed the show, plays Gately, a quiet country boy who makes up in common sense and cordiality what he lacks in intelligence. He's a voluntary patient in a military hospital's psych ward. While Gately spends weeks patiently trying to repair a radio, even though parts keep disappearing and the guy the radio is for has died, two other patients circle his work table. Silvio (Wylie Herman) is a fast-talking big-city blowhard, not quite the smooth operator he believes himself to be. He amuses himself by tormenting Natwick (James Hesla, who designed the good sets and collaborated with Elton on production design and costumes). Natwick is a depressed, anxious rich kid from Long Island. All three have been damaged somehow by the Vietnam War, although the damage is not always physical, and some predates boot camp.

Natwick is the gloomiest of the three. Told that every cloud has a silver lining, he retorts, "Take out that lining and what have you got? A cloud. A dark and dangerous cloud." Silvio is always up to something, playing practical jokes on Natwick, flashing the nurses, or talking obsessively to Gately about loose underwear and kilts. Gately, meanwhile, tries to mind his own business, although he does eventually sidle into criticism of America's Vietnam excursion by noting that everything would be all right if people would just fight their own private wars. (It's a more aggressive counterpart to Voltaire's admonition in Candide that we should just settle down and make our gardens grow.) These guys may be off the battlefield, but they're still at war with themselves.

This is often hilarious stuff. McClure is expert at creating snappy lines for characters who understand each other intuitively but haven't the faintest idea what anybody is talking about. It's not as dark and sharp as it could be, though; McClure swings toward entertainment rather than provocation.

At Friday's opening night performance, some lines hadn't yet fallen snugly into place, but the three actors knew their characters inside and out. Everything came fully together after intermission, in Lone Star.

Set in roughly the same period, but now behind a bar in the tiny Texas town of Maynard, Lone Star shines its twinkling light on brothers Roy and Ray (in Texas, even the names are inbred). Roy (Elton), whose marriage doesn't keep him from regular bouts of drinkin', fightin' and whorin', has just come back from Vietnam to discover that most of his old high school buddies have grown up and left town--leaving Roy behind in more ways than one. Roy's few remaining points of reference are Ray (Hesla), who is slow-witted but no fool, and his beloved pink 1959 Thunderbird convertible.

Elton makes an excellent transition from the quiet peacemaker of Private Wars to this play's dangerous but lovable loudmouth. Similarly, Hesla leaves Natwick's New York far behind and plays Ray as a convincingly simple country boy but not a moron. Herman is completely transformed in his small role as Cletis, the nerdish hardware store manager whom Roy loves to loathe.

Both plays address the issues of war damage and resistance to change with a lightly satiric touch. And each includes a convulsively funny role-playing scene, in which a "slow" character musters enough imagination to thwart a know-it-all's point.

As a director, Elton never lets an actor overplay his lines, which--especially in Lone Star--makes all the difference between engaging character-based comedy and a Hee-Haw skit.

Elton and company have assembled actors and a production team who seem ready to pull of just about anything. Now put Herman in that kilt Silvio keeps talking about, and we're halfway to Brigadoon.

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