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People With Issues 

Local theater companies currently offer sex talk, nudity and a touch of Southern hospitality

Of three theater openings last week, one show focused exclusively on women with big hair, while another dwelled on men with big aspirations under their G-strings. The third integrated two men and a woman in a way that shows neither gender to particular advantage, but it did so more fully and honestly than the other two productions, which aspire to be little more than light entertainment.

So before examining the Louisiana ladies of Steel Magnolias and the Buffalo beefcake of The Full Monty, let us focus on the louche limeys of Harold Pinter's Betrayal in its University of Arizona production.

Pinter's play opens with two people engaging in the English national pastime: talking around sex, but not getting any. Emma and Jerry have gotten together for a little chat, two years past the end of their long-term adulterous affair. Only now is Emma's marriage breaking up, not because of her own dalliances, but because her husband, Robert, seems to have strayed repeatedly. Well, we have to take Emma's word for this, because neither she nor Pinter provide any supporting evidence, and Emma and her two men spend most of the play making claims that could only charitably be described as half-truths.

Pinter then leads Emma, Jerry and Robert through a past-life regression, back through the mists of time (would somebody please turn off that damn smoke machine?) to the Age of Nookie. Oh, yes, there was a period when our characters did engage in sexual intercourse, though not necessarily with their own spouses. Pinter hops back a few years at a time, tracing the history of the Emma-Jerry affair to its clumsy beginning.

Playing with chronology--long before Pulp Fiction and Memento--turns this into a much more interesting play than it would otherwise have been. Pinter is well aware of the banality of his love triangle; had the scenes progressed in the usual order, the play would have ended with Jerry and Robert chatting halfheartedly about vacationing in the Lake District. As it is, the beginning of the story, in the play's final scene, is banal enough; Jerry makes a drunken pass at Emma during a party. What could she possibly see in this guy?

Throughout the years, Emma remains studiously oblivious to many things; in contrast, Robert catches on to the affair well before it ends, and spends a couple of scenes baiting Jerry, who has no idea that he's been found out.

The motivations of Pinter characters are usually difficult to discern; in Betrayal, he obscures motivations not through his usual cryptic, out-of-sync dialogue--Mamet without the dirty words--but through taking a straightforward story and telling it more or less backward. We always know what has happened; only gradually do we learn the why.

For the most part, the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre production serves Betrayal well. Director Samantha K. Wyer has made sure her three actors play something more than self-absorbed twits. Well, yes, they're British, so that particular element is inescapable, but there are honest human feelings behind the twittage. What we don't quite get is an authentic Pinter rhythm, those bursts of short, staccato lines separated by uncomfortable pauses.

Elizabeth Keller's Emma isn't much different at one end of the story from the other; she's a consistent mixture of guardedness and irresponsibility, but this is pretty much all Pinter gives Keller to work with. Nate Weisband's Jerry is amiable and awkward in his duplicity, as he should be. Jonathan Hicks seems like an interesting and appropriately dry Robert, but it's hard to tell. Wyer makes the mistake of presenting the action nearly in the round, and in almost all of Robert's key scenes, all I could see was the back of Hicks' head, which I am sorry to report is not particularly expressive; Hicks must have been absent the day they covered How to Make Your Occipital Lobe Twitch Like Clint Eastwood's Jaw Muscles. Hicks' voice is properly steady; it's only the face that reveals what Robert is really up to, and without a view of that, we're as clueless about Robert's intentions as poor, philandering Jerry.

Coincidentally, a character named Jerry stands at the center of Terrence McNally and David Yazbeck's The Full Monty, a more readily revealing show in more ways than one. It's a musical based on a movie about unemployed factory workers who try to raise money by putting on a regular-guy strip show. Unfortunately, these guys are hardly paragons of masculine pulchritude; as their women taunt them in one song, they're either too fat, old, skinny, bald or short, or have pimples on their ass. Jerry and his friends realize that the only way they'll have any pull at the box office is to offer the full monty--take it all off.

These are guys with serious self-esteem issues: They're out of work, out of shape and just about out of time with the women who support them. Jerry is worst off; his ex-wife is about to cut off access to his son if he doesn't come up with back child-support payments. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and that means putting on a show.

This is pretty simple stuff, but luckily, the film invented some believable, endearingly flawed blue-collar characters. Aside from resetting the action from England to Buffalo, N.Y., McNally doesn't impose any intellectual complications on the script--it's dirty words without the Mamet. As for the highly anticipated full-frontal nudity, it lasts about two seconds, and it's in lighting so dim that most details of the actors' anatomies will remain known only to their lovers and urologists. Granny will not be shocked, although she may be disappointed.

The Full Monty is a commercial show by the standards of Arizona Onstage Productions, which is more closely associated with the deeply felt, nonpandering works of William Finn. Still, if the company finds it necessary to replenish its bank account with a crowd-pleaser, at least it's not compromising its principles. Like most Arizona Onstage shows, The Full Monty deals with issues of sexual identity and the nature of friendship and family without tripping over too many clichés. True, the men here can be macho pricks; the women are tough providers with a keen eye for the male thigh; and the guys are coached by a tough old showbiz veteran who could pass for Martha Raye. But they all have to sort through their strengths and insecurities in ways that seem fairly authentic, by the standards of the Broadway musical.

It's a big show for Arizona Onstage. The set units look a little too small and low-budget for the Temple of Music and Art's main stage, but all the other elements work nicely, from the costumes and lighting to the crisp five-piece band and the large cast that, for the most part, transcends the declamatory earnestness endemic to non-Equity musicals. The six actors in the core male ensemble play well off each other. Especially good are the wistful Michael Mendez as Jerry's overweight best friend, and Marcus Terrell Smith in his show-stopping number as an older black man proving he still has what it takes to join this crew. Jay C. Cotner plays Jerry without the usual tough-guy steelworker mannerisms; on opening night, his singing was slightly ragged, but his stamina was pretty impressive considering that in a few hours, Cotner would be sitting in an emergency room with a 104-degree temperature and no voice at all.

Two other standout players are the ebullient Elizabeth Cracchiolo and Kate FitzGibbons, each of whom delivers a kick-in-the-pants number before McNally sends them back to the wings. Through most of this show, it's the men who have to keep the balls in the air.

Women get their chance at Live Theatre Workshop, which just opened Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias. It's a formulaic, manipulative and therefore not surprisingly popular account of two years in the lives of women who congregate in a beauty parlor in the fictitious town of Chinquapin, La. A chinquapin is also a kind of chestnut, which is exactly what we get from Harling. I'd love to roast it on an open fire, but director Sabian Trout and her strong cast give us a production that respects the characters, as well as the intelligence of the audience.

Harling based the play's primary story on the experiences of his sister, a diabetic who against her better judgment got pregnant. But Harling submerges this in so much slice-of-life Southern-gal banter that we almost wind up with six characters in search of a plot.

Steel Magnolias can easily come off like a bad episode of the old TV show Alice, but Trout and her cast tone down the stereotypes and platitudes and give us characters significant for what they are not. Shelby, the diabetic, and her mother, M'Lynn (played with admirable evenness and subtlety by Holli Henderson and Carlisle Ellis), aren't warring contrarians, but are merely strong-willed women who nevertheless love each other. Annelle, the new hair stylist, stabilizes her life by turning born-again Christian, but Megan Patno plays her with sincerity, not holier-than-thou caricature. Kristi Loera as the salon owner is not too loud, and Peg Peterson as the mayor's widow is not too haughty; they both find authenticity in characters written without much depth. Joan Van Dyke doesn't have much opportunity to overcome the limitations of her part as a peevish neighbor, but she does deliver her one-liners with the necessary cranky zing.

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