Opening Nights

The Mystery of Attraction

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., April 24

As in the works of such hard-boiled anti-eroticists as Neil LaBute and David Mamet, Marlane Meyer's play wields a standard pulp device (here, a $20,000 gambling debt) to drive a wedge into the true emotions underlying a tangle of bad attitudes and dishonest couplings. The three main characters in this play are, by turns, weak, sociopathic, and scheming—Tweedle Dee, Dum, and Damned—though they're entirely similar in their lack of any sort of emotional center from which to find true satisfaction. The women are heartless vamps and ice queens; the men are vicious, scared, and full of bluster. As one female character aptly puts it, "The secret world of men and their games—all it is is scary talk about monsters."

Ray (Brandon Whitehead) is a lawyer whose piss-poor decisions at the card table are leading him into a confrontation with one Bone Daddy (James Winkler), the aforementioned "monster" and a man possessed of a talent for separating men from their clavicles. Ray's brother Warren (Connor Toms) is a fallen cop unhappily married to Ray's former wife, Sharkey—a character who never appears onstage yet who provides the amoral linchpin of the play—and who hatches an illicit plan to bail his brother out of arrears. When Ray finally fesses his problem to his wife, Denise (Kate Czajkowski), the matrimonial crap hits the fan. It's ugly stuff, squirmy with exaggerated insight into the lies lovers tell one another. Sometimes the dialogue veers off the rails—come on, could anything "run like a golden thread through the tapestry of my hatred"?—but it's far more often wickedly entertaining.

This is a one-act piece running at a pretty high pitch, with the result that sitting still for all the verbal abuse and backdoor revelations can feel like being caught on the underside of an escalator for an hour and a half. Suckers for this sort of upside-the- intellect masochism, however, will be amply rewarded, particularly during two riveting monologues: a filthy brotherly tirade launched by Warren and, even better, the moment when Denise at last uncorks on Ray. The acting is superb; especially good is Czajkowski, whose portrayal of a wife out of love is a powerhouse of repressed rage and killer glares.

Mystery is an old-fashioned noir, heavy on the sexual politics and seething with not-so-quiet desperation. The drama threatens to spill into outright nihilism at every moment, yet somehow the characters remain sympathetic— or at least interesting—until, liter­ally and morally, the lights go out. For what it is, it's a hell of a lot of fun. RICHARD MORIN

The Center of Gravity

Union Garage; ends Sat., April 17

Gregory Hischak's new play is an irreverent reimagining of the life and times of those original flying brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The story is less about the brothers' aviation accomplishments, however, and more about the nature of dreams and the price of failure— hence the play's subtitle, The Disinvention of the Airplane. There's also the trademark power dynamic between the siblings, though, in this case, it's less good brother/bad brother and more sensible younger brother (Orville)/manic older brother (Wilbur).

Director Sophi Sagall Hopkins lets the actors dominate the production, eschewing any suggestion of a set aside from a few steps and some doorways. The story line skips back and forth in time and place—a row of painted boxes, each noting a different year, is above the stage; a light goes on above a box indicating in what year the action is occurring—meaning the characterizations come together gradually. Wilbur comes across as a loud brash dreamer, Orville his long-suffering accomplice. And in this telling, dreams die young: Wilbur perishes in a flying accident; the brothers' flight ambitions are superceded by one Samuel Langley; and Wilbur proves to be more than a brother-in-law to Orville's pragmatic wife, Margot (Celene Panariello).

The nonlinear format keeps the story moving, and the bit-by-bit approach helps hold your interest, with the actors readily adapting to the sometimes abrupt changes (though the dialogue occasionally becomes repetitious). A recurring joke has mother Lillian Wright (Julia Leonas) unable to tell the brothers apart—in a casting twist, Shawn Law and Cory Nealy alternate playing Wilbur and Orville with each performance. This adds some additional humor, as when Nealy, as Orville, refers to himself as the taller of the brothers when he's actually shorter than Law. Law's thinner physique also seems more appropriate to the hyped-up antics of Wilbur, while the balding, stouter Nealy underscores the stability of Orville's character, which does make one curious to see how such a switch would work (an additional subversive touch would've been having Panariello and Leonas switching their characters, too). Though not always light, Center of Gravity does have plenty of what the flying brothers would call "Lift!" GILLIAN G. GAAR

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