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Forked Paths 

Two fantastic local productions depict characters heading toward life's crossroads

Acting isn't just a matter of delivering lines; actors must also listen and react while others are speaking. Two terrific productions that opened last weekend give actors abundant opportunities to demonstrate the art of listening, for each play is essentially a sequence of monologues, often amusing, sometimes harrowing.

Borderlands Theater is offering Blind Date, by the Argentine-born, Miami-based Mario Diament. The play is a series of, for the most part, chance encounters, many of them on a park bench presided over by a blind writer modeled on Jorge Luis Borges. That great concoctor of stories and essays is best remembered for his blend of philosophy and fantasy, writings that contemplate stopped time, infinite space and forking paths. It's a particularly Latin-American style of writing and thinking that has hardly caught on in North America, save for a few exceptions, like Steven Millhauser and Alan Lightman.

So Blind Date is set, necessarily, in Argentina, a place where passers-by actually recognize their nation's major author sitting on a park bench, even if they haven't read his work. The Blind Man--no character in this play has a name--finds himself in conversation first with a 50-year-old bank executive going through a midlife crisis, which seems to involve stalking a young sculptor. The Blind Man next meets a young sculptor who tells him how she's been toying with a 50-year-old man who seems to be stalking her. We also hear from a desperately disappointed mother of a young sculptor, who relays her disenchantment to a psychologist who is married to a 50-year-old bank executive who has been obsessed with a young sculptor.

In Blind Date, Diament seems to be borrowing elements from many earlier sources. The same story is recounted from several perspectives, as in the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon; characters are shown in pairs in a handoff structure reminiscent of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen; characters talk about important things that happen only offstage, as in Greek drama; a seemingly lighthearted entertainment turns dark by the end, as in the plays of Alfred de Musset; and, on the subject of French theater, the final park-bench scene, between lovers who never were, calls to mind the end of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. Yet none of this seems at all derivative; Diament's play merely shares a Borgesian delight in the unexpected connectedness of things.

The danger here is that the series of monologues will turn static, something that can be avoided only if the speakers--and the characters who listen--remain consistently involving. That's certainly true in this production, directed by Barclay Goldsmith. As the Blind Man, Roberto Guajardo manages to provide a remarkably deep characterization despite the fact that this fellow reveals the least about himself. Guajardo also has a perfect command of Diament's sometimes formal cadences. Rick Shipman, as the banker, doesn't quite match Guajardo's level of mastery on the few occasions when his lines become more literary than conversational, but his great strength is as a listener, focusing on what he hears from other characters even while his face betrays preoccupations elsewhere.

Eva Tessler's affect is properly flat in her role of the psychologist, but Tessler nearly spits venom when trouble invades her character's private life. Jessica Risco is entirely convincing as the not entirely free-spirited young artist, and Roxanne Harley brings fragile, dark dignity to the role of her mother. They all work in minimalist surroundings designed by John Longhofer, with simple quasi-abstract images projected onto a drape in the back: something leafy during the park scenes, and a barred window in the psychologist's office, evoking the cage that some of the characters feel like they're in.

The characters in John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo also feel caged, and they're desperate to get out but have no idea where to find the door, let alone the key to the lock. Live Theatre Workshop's late-night series is presenting Shanley's so-called "concert play"; there's no music in it, but it is a set of spoken solos and some ensemble numbers, all variations on a theme of dissatisfaction.

Shanley is not a Catholic writer, but he does have a Catholic background, and in medieval Catholic mythology, limbo is the place at the edge of hell to which are consigned the souls of blameless infants who died before being baptized, and those who died "in the friendship of God" but before the coming of Jesus made their redemption possible. Shanley's characters are 32-year-old Bronx residents who, through no real fault of their own, flounder in a dreary neverland where the present is untenable, and a different sort of future is almost unimaginable.

The scene is a dirty bar, a dysfunction junction for locals who have nothing better to do on a Monday night than drink and mope. The savage of the play's title is Denise Savage, still a virgin for no particular reason, a woman snarling with pent-up energy. She strikes up a conversation with Linda Rotunda, the neighborhood tramp, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend, Tony Aronica, who has declared that he will now cavort only with ugly girls, for he has come to the conclusion that ugly girls seem to know something he doesn't, and he wants that knowledge.

These interactions are supervised by the glowering bartender, Murk; he is primarily interested in keeping a protective haze around a barfly named April, who once wanted to become a do-gooder nun but stumbled into the life of an alcoholic instead.

Murk insists on watering his houseplants, even though they're dead--"They don't know that," he growls in justification, and the same might be said of the people in this bar. They want to live, somehow, which means they must change; they have no plans, but through the course of the evening, they stumble through a series of shifting alliances.

Christopher Johnson, who plays Murk with a mixture of malevolence and tenderness, directs this production, and he's assembled a splendid cast, led by Sarah MacMillan as the loud, intense Denise Savage. Tami Sutton plays Linda with the right degree of bitterness, de-emphasizing the sluttiness to create a very human character. Bilal Mir channels the Saturday Night Fever-era John Travolta as Tony, but remember that this involves not just strutting like a peacock, but also revealing hints of confusion and softness. Danielle Dryer is touching as April, a young woman to whom there's more than sloppy drunkenness--but probably not for long.

Can these characters, or those in Blind Date, stumble their way toward something resembling satisfaction? Perhaps, perhaps not; it depends on the directions they turn, however ignorantly, in their gardens of forking paths.

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