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American Heartland finds fun in science, but the Coterie sees horror ... horror ... horror



Playwright Norm Foster is to theater as Danielle Steel is to literature: a happily prolific producer of reliable, mainstream entertainment who makes no pretension to art. Foster's specialty is light theatrical comedy; he has churned out dozens of slick, formulaic, punch-line-stuffed crowd pleasers. Thus the sobriquet (sometimes said as praise, sometimes as condemnation): "the Canadian Neil Simon."

Foster obviously doesn't mind the comparison. The first scene of Love List, one of his most popular comedies, begins as a fairly direct rip-off of Simon's The Odd Couple, with the flattest of mismatched stock characters (fussy, factoid-obsessed statistician Bill and his earthier, commercial-novelist best friend, Leon), a conventionally wacky conceit (Leon signs up confirmed bachelor Bill with a matchmaking service run by a Gypsy) and predictable jokes.

Like an eHarmony questionnaire for dummies, the dating service requires only that patrons list their top 10 criteria for the mate of their dreams (i.e., the Love List). The reluctant Bill fills in the list with qualities such as "ambitious" and "speaks her mind" (and protests Leon's inserted contribution: "likes kinky sex"). Premise in place, the audience is set for an evening of groaners. And yet, there must be something in that old magic after all because, scene by scene, Love List opens up, surprises and, somehow, actually works.

Much of the credit for Love List's success belongs to its three fantastic actors. Veterans Sean Grennan and Scott Cordes exhibit effortless timing and chemistry as flustered workaholic Bill (Grennan) and brash, bawdy Leon (Cordes). But it's St. Louis import Shanara Gabrielle (making her Kansas City debut) who takes the star turn, playing Justine, the embodiment of Bill's love list. A modern-day Judy Holliday, Gabrielle portrays Justine with just the right dizzy charm and effervescent obliviousness. And like slapstick heroines of old, she's comfortable using her bombshell body for comic effect. She gets an assist from director Paul Hough, who deserves credit not only for the production's polished, zippy pace but also for its costumes, which show an impressively nuanced understanding of sluttiness.

Justine's welcome arrival in the second scene sets off a chain reaction that gives the lightweight but well-constructed Love List its dramatic momentum. The play picks up steam as Bill and Leon gradually figure out the workings and consequences of the list. The list subsequently undergoes multiple revisions (as does Justine). Interesting complications result when, like Frankenstein's monster, Justine begins to have consciousness (and criteria) of her own. Gabrielle gets to show off split-second timing as her character turns, and turns again, on a dime.

For a breathless scene or two — and almost despite itself — Love List comes dangerously close to making us think. Big-boob jokes bump up against Schrödinger's cat, parallel universes and cosmic determinism (what Leon describes as "a hole in the cosmic pie crust"). Not to worry. Time wrinkles, and quick as a flash, we're back to Neil Simon territory and a neat but satisfying conclusion. Like Justine, Love List is clever enough to avoid being too smart but is just smart enough to allow your inner snob to enjoy itself.

What Love List brushes against is explored full-bore in the Coterie's season opener. Science Fiction, that most philosophical of genres, provides both organizing principle and title in this triple feature of dark, vividly dramatized inquiries into the nature of being and civilization.

Science Fiction's first feature, based on Ray Bradbury's 1950 story "The Veldt," comes nearest to classic sci-fi, with its Lost in Space aesthetic, quaintly futuristic costumes (by the imaginative Georgianna Buchanan) and Jetsons-like automated house. This dystopian tale of virtual reality gone awry is no cartoon, though. With references to the "smell of violence" and "death thoughts in children's minds," its prophetic view of today's video-game-addicted youth begins in paranoia and ends in the original primal fear. Dayton Hollis and Allison Banks are chillingly adorable as siblings who exact horrible revenge against parental authority.

The show's most fully developed segment is adapted from the 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon, another prescient cautionary tale. Rusty Sneary stars as Charlie, a low-IQ bakery worker who yearns to be normal. Vanessa Severo is excellent as his sympathetic teacher and moral foil to the heartless research scientist (played by Martin Buchanan) in pursuit of scientific advancement. Sneary shines, playing an unusually broad dramatic range as his character rapidly advances from slow-witted innocent to disillusioned genius and back.

By the Waters of Babylon is based on a 1937 Stephen Vincent Benét story that eerily foretold a civilization whose "towers began to fall." Yet the story seems not futuristic but nostalgic, recalling post-apocalyptic and caveman movies from Saturday-afternoon TV. Coming as it does after the full, devastating arc of Algernon, it feels extraneous and slight.

Director Jeff Church might have done well to stop while he was ahead and call it a day with a double feature. If the aim is to end on a slightly more uplifting note, then the Coterie is overprotecting its audience. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that moral reasoning burgeoned from ages 12 to 16; little wonder that teens devour science fiction. Kids are fearlessly deep thinkers. Perhaps better than the rest of us, they can take cosmic darkness.

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