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Off Broadway Reviews

A Brief Excursion
The Sheets

Sometimes the poetry of words is almost music. You hear it; you appreciate the meaning, but you can also let it wash over you like a fugue. The writer plays with rhythm, with repetition, with sound. You know you are in able hands.

I had the pleasure of seeing two plays this week which use language like an instrument. They are two short plays by John Greiner which are being performed together at the Pulse Theatre, one of the many small houses on Theatre Row. The first was The Sheets, a kind of bizarre love triangle set in the art world. The play is very funny as it pokes fun at art, artists, aspiring artists. The dialogue was stylized and intriguing; I wished I could read it to savor every word. Greiner is a master of repetition; one verbal refrain was "a landscape of ideas," which is really what his plays are. Everything, from the sets to the props to the words, works on many levels. One particularly funny riff rhapsodizes over Oedipus as a role model. The absurdity escapes the characters, but not the audience.

The second play was A Brief Excursion, certainly the more puzzling of the two pieces. The play is set in a kitchen (which was beautifully designed by Sara Jean Tosetti) where every act is so heightened that the eating of a tomato takes on horror-film dimensions. As we left, I heard someone remark, "I got something about cannibalism and Western culture and the Church." I can't say that I got any of those things from the play (well, maybe a hint of cannibalism), but the dynamics of what was happening on stage were gripping. I felt as though I had somehow landed in Hell, but it was an entertaining place, because everyone there had really good lines. I needed a little more to ground me in this one; I was willing to go on a somewhat baffling journey if my destination were revealed by the end, but neither I nor my companion could quite figure it out what we'd witnessed. I wish Greiner had used a few more brush-strokes, though it was disturbingly compelling just the same.

An interesting advantage of seeing the two plays together was being able to see some of the same actors in different parts. Holly Ann Kling plays a corn- fed, fresh-off-the-bus girl with wide-eyed dopey-ness in The Sheets. In A Brief Excursion she is the nagging, reluctant visitor to Oscar's house, where she is ultimately seduced and transformed. Robert Di Falco is edgy and surprising in both plays. Sally Kemp and Elizabeth Brownlee, who appear only in A Brief Excursion, perform their parts with desperate emotion, similar notes in different keys.

Robert Margolis is extraordinary in both pieces. Though the two roles he plays are utterly different from each other, he is mesmerizing in both. There is something riveting about his stance, the way his eyes shift before he speaks. My friend Cara was impressed by his ability, particularly in The Sheets, to convey emotion with his body, as his face remained rather deadpan. His portrayal of Oscar in A Brief Excursion is terrifying, yet completely seductive, with an intensity and intimacy that remind me a bit of John Malkovitch.

I hope you'll get a chance to see them; they're worth the trip.

The Sheets and A Brief Excursion will be running until Sunday, December 6 at The Pulse Theatre, 432 West 42nd Street. All tickets are $12. -- Wendy Guida

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