Brief Encounters

A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Tapdog/Underdog.

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN

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 Thurs. and Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Sept. 28. At ACT, you get the theme of Eugene O'Neill's weirdly moving final play before anybody says a word: In Shelley Henze Schermer's smoky, evocative set, the two sections of a broken-down Connecticut farmhouse lean together like embracing drunks, each bound to fall without the firm pressure of the other. Much drunkenness ensues and infinite emotional pressure from which the sole salvation is the forgiving human embrace. The top sot is James Tyrone Jr. (John Procaccino), closely based on O'Neill's brother, James, who died soon after Eugene wrote this play, a half-redemptive companion piece to Long Day's Journey Into Night that might've been titled Long Night's Journey Into Day. The secret true love of his life is big-boned gal Josie Hogan (Jeanne Paulsen), who might be an erotic fantasy by R. Crumb if Crumb were a self-lacerating Catholic drunk with a mommy complex. Josie and her daddy, Phil (Sean G. Griffin), are James' tenants, farmers scratching a living from stony soil by emulating its habit of hard refusal. At first, the play is all Josie and Phil's (plus a brief walk-off part by David Gehrman as Josie's runaway kid brother), all broad comedy. Phil razzes Josie about her whorish ways and undesirability; she exults in her bad reputation. There's a slapstick dispute with an uppity millionaire neighbor (ably played by Galen Joseph Osier) over Hogan pigs trespassing in his ice pond. The ethnic humor and Irish dialect are as thick as Blarney stone stew, but here they're highly amusing and, as intended, misleading. Because soon the blood alcohol content rises with the moon and James bays at it, confessing his ugliest secrets and deepest yearnings; Josie drops her hard-chick disguise, revealing the divine face of the Virgin. It sounds simple in synopsis, and logically it makes no senseJosie is a stomping symbolbut you have to see it happen before your eyes to believe it. Paulsen and Procaccino make it happen: Each has scored big on Broadway, and here (to my mind) they outdo the play's 1984 Broadway revival. Paulsen looms bigger than Kate Nelligan, larger-hearted. Procaccino captures James' skidoo flippancy, his lively death wish. I think it's the longest, toughest love scene ever written. They broke my heart. TIM APPELO TOPDOG/UNDERDOG

Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-443-2222. $10-$46. 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sat., Sept. 27. Like any truly great play, Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog resonates plausibly and compellingly on each of its levels. You're as moved by its human frustrations as you are by its brooding, pensive allegory; it earns its high-mindedness by keeping things real. This is more difficult than it sounds. Parks has named her feuding African-American siblings after two of our country's more contentious "brothers"Lincoln and Booth. But the metaphor slides comfortably alongside, on top of, and underneath Parks' colloquial consideration of just what it feels like trying to stay afloat in a society that couldn't care less. The weight of her conceit is buoyed by a compassionate rage and a very dark wit. Abandoned by their parents as children, Booth (Larry Gilliard) and Lincoln (Harold Perrineau) are eking out an existence in a tenement apartment: Booth, hoping to finally ensnare his one great love, will steal anything he can get his hands on (he struts in at one point wearing two suits); Lincoln is employed in whiteface as his illustrious namesake at an arcade, where customers pay to play his assassin at Ford's Theatre (he imagines freshening up the act by having the president noisily unwrap a candy or speak on a cell phone). Lincoln was once a small-time sidewalk hustler of some repute; a salivating Booth would like a piece of the three-card monte action to which Lincoln would rather not return. The acting here is the best you'll see this season. Gilliard seems effortless in his transition from manic, would-be smooth-talker to howling malcontent, and a searing Perrineau hits every sodden shade of Lincoln's shabby royalty. Director George C. Wolfe, repeating his Broadway success, elevates the piece by making Parks' conceit seamless. The shifts from personal to universal are only as jarring as they're meant to be. The evening can sometimes get a little drowsy, perhaps because the play is more of a mood piece than a plot. But what a moodfilled with volatile humor and a lingering sense of misery. The play's claustrophobic intricacies untangle in your mind for days afterward. For once, the Rep hasn't gone and built an entire cityscape to show us urban despair. Wolfe magnificently uses silhouette and never makes scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez's perfect one-room hovel a liability: The brothers are just stuckand we're not getting out of there, either. Booth and Lincoln become two trapped citizens of the world, who see each other reeling downward but won'tor can'tdo anything about it. STEVE WIECKING

 
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