ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7676. $10-$45. 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Aug. 3.

A comedy that will tickle the ribs of moneyed senior citizens everywhere, Alan Ayckbourn's 1970s farce is an understandably safe choice for ACT in its first postcrisis season. It's just unfortunate that this capably bland production has to feel so damn safe.

Ayckbourn always has a gimmick, and here each of the play's three acts takes place at a harried gathering in the respective homes of three different-classed couplesnervous social climbers, intellectual malcontents, and the blasé rich. Unfortunately, director Jeff Steitzer wants us tosighappreciate the mild social commentary puttering around beneath the material, as though a show involving the split-second timing of potato chip spills should be approached with tact. The result is that, yes, we do indeed notice the characters' pathetic attempts to be loved in our crushingly competitive society. What fun.

Missing from this production is the escapist thrill that accompanies even the lowest of farces: the manic sense that the entire madcap thing would spin wildly out of control if it weren't in such good hands. The cast of top local pros is just pleasantly ambling here. They seem happy to be in each other's company, and fine with being in ours, but it's just another day for themno one's romping anywhere near the comic edge. The exceptions: Julie Briskman and Larry Paulsen, who are big, game, and goosey as the obnoxious middle-class upstarts, like cheeky survivors off some yellowing BBC sitcom. But their pleasures are just as easy to be had in the comfort of your own harried home with your television tuned to Channel 9. STEVE WIECKING


Volunteer Park, Capitol Hill, 206-324-5801 for more info. Free. 7 p.m. Fri.; 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends Sat., Aug. 2.

I strolled down to Volunteer Park last weekend for a little open-air entertainment, carrying only a bottle of water and, alas, no sunblock. First stop: Wooden O's feverish production of Much Ado About Nothing. Imagine, if you can, Shakespeare's sharp little comedy performed by the cast of Charlotte's Web, and you get the general idea. Not that you can blame Beatrice and Benedick for sounding like Wilbur and Fern; it's tough to perform for an audience that includes people playing Frisbee.

But then I trotted over to The Country Wife, Theater Schmeater's contribution to the outdoors. The show is awfully goodI expect as much from Schmeaterand I'm still wondering how the actors managed to turn the vast venue to their full advantage. One answer, I guess, is that William Wycherley's play is very cartoonish to begin with. It's a typically ribald Restoration comedy about a naive young bride who visits London for the first time, only to be devoured by a rake while her overprotective husband proves himself a buffoon.

So, yes, the material is pretty indelicate, which leads to overactingyet this cast overacts exceptionally well. What's more, director Anthony Winkler keeps things fresh and loose, never allowing the play's language to stiffen things up. He even latches onto a cute conceit: Everyone dresses in '50s attire, which doesn't exactly bring new meaning to the play, but does allow the actors to look awfully snazzy. Outdoor theater is like children's theateryou don't go for subtlety. CHRIS JENSEN


Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 206-781-9707. $10-$26. 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat. Ends Sat., Aug. 9.

OK, so it's better than the movie. The film version of The Spitfire Grill was a big hit at Sundanceisn't that all the warning you need?and now it's a musical chock-full of hope and redemption. The material works better as a musical, I think, because (a) it would be mighty difficult to stage the film's most preposterous events, and (b) musicals are kind of cornpone anyway. (Beloved cornpone, yes, but you know what I mean: When a character tells me that a bright new day is dawning, I tend to chortle. When she sings itwell, I turn into a big, sloppy mess.)

Taproot Theatre's new production is solid but unremarkable. The cast is mostly strong, the bluegrass-inspired music is excellent, and Scott Nolte continues his tradition of directing with a maximum amount of competency and a minimum amount of flair.

The story is a rehash of various Hallmark Hall of Fame specials. An ex-convict named Percy (Francile Albright) decides to settle down in Gilead, Wis., where she lands a job at a local cafe owned by Hannah (Pam Nolte). The townspeople are deeply distrustful of Percy, so she must find a way to redeem herself. Do you think she'll win their respect? Will the mousy waitress (Carin Towne) stand up to her controlling husband? Oh, and heyno points if you guess the whereabouts of Hannah's mysterious missing son who was last seen departing for Vietnam, and who may or may not bear some resemblance to the strange bearded man who lives in the woods behind the Grill. C.J.


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