Alley Oops

On Stage

ONE-ACT PLAYS are risky business. Instead of being short and well-focused, they often end up with overwrought plots and underdeveloped characters, trying to squeeze all of life's sorrows and tragedies into 45 minutes. The bad one-acts always seem to center on two or three character who reveal their every secret dream and sin at warp speed.

Am I Blue by Beth Henley

What Time Is This Place? by Paul Dervis

At the Alley Theatre in Inman Square

Through March 21

Fortunately the Alley Theater has found a playwright who knows better. Pulitzer Prizewinner Beth Henley knows the limits of the form, and her Am I Blue. proves it. The other half of this double bill, however, suffers by comparison.

With its Southern eccentrics and loony humor, Am I Blue is easy to peg as a Beth Henley work. Set in New Orleans circa 1968, it follows characters that would fit right into her 1982 play Crimes of the Heart. John Polk (Nicholas Martine-Smith) and Ashbe Williams (Jacqueline Grad) are as sweet, strange and irresistable as the three McGrath sisters.

John Polk is a shy college boy getting ready for a birthday present from his frat brothers--a night with a French Quarter prostitue. Drinking at the Blue Angel saloon to settle his nerves, he is intruded upon by Ashbe, a girl with horn-rimmed glasses and non-stop chitchat. The two misfits somehow hit it off and end up at Ashbe's unkempt apartment, where she serves Cheerios, marshmallows, and drinks with blue food-coloring. By the end of the night, they are dancing to the sweet sounds of New Orleans radio, very pleased in their shared oddness.

Thanks to Henley's sharp sense of dialogue and pacing, the oddness of Am I Blue is indeed very pleasing. Both John Polk and Ashbe are charming and intriguing characters. A couple of revelations from each do just fine at keeping this one-act interesting. Its utter lack of pretense and solemnity keeps it lively.

Moving easily between hostility and flirtatiousness, Grad and Martin-Smith achieve a fine rapport as well as a credible relationship. Furthermore, they never exaggerate their Southern accents or overdo the comic antics.

THE SECOND play, What Time Is This Place?, never attains the vigor and spark of Am I Blue. Written by the artistic director of the Alley, this one-act is a '60s-meets-the-'80s drama. It tries too hard to say something meaningful about the latest generation gap and ends up being contrived.

Playwright Dervis places his two main characters in close quarters--an Amtrak dining car on a train from Chicago to San Francisco. Tom (David Frisch) is a Yippie turned corporate executive. Founder of The Advocate, a left-wing newspaper, he is headed to the West Coast in order to sell its current mainstream incarnation. Busily writing out proposals, he is joined rudely by Spence (George Saulnier), a self-proclaimed, 17-year-old "romantic drifter." What Time charts three hours of their relationship, and falls straight into the one-act trap of revealing every silly detail about the pair.

Tom, for instance, hitchhiked with Kerouac to Big Sur, stormed the president's office at Columbia and studied beat poetry with Ferlinghetti. Not even the competent acting of Saulnier and Frisch can instill plausibility into these characters.

What makes the one-act watchable is its clever organization. Divided into 15 short segments, What Time never gets bogged down in one particular scene. Ultimately, though, the script's stilted language and puzzling plot twists make it a poor match for Am I Blue.