Opening Nights: An Evening of One Acts at ACT

A confident cast, savvy direction by R. Hamilton Wright, and superior staging and effects boost this comely production beyond the generically titled sum of its parts. It could have been called Cranks, after the quixotic oddballs at the center of each of three uniquely American comedies. Luckily, each endearing crackpot churns his own flavor of crazy butter.

In Steve Martin’s Patter for the Floating Lady, a loquacious magician (David Foubert) attempts to charm (literally) his glamorous assistant (Jessica Skerritt) into loving him again, until her id—a hilariously malevolent cabaret entertainer played by Hana Lass—sets him straight. Martin Christoffel’s glitzy yet austere set captures the tinny hollowness of Vegas illusions.

Woody Allen’s Riverside Driveraises the stakes when Crank #2, a charismatic street person (a fantastic Eric Ray Anderson) who self-characterizes as “an original, like Stravinsky, or ketchup,” corners a neurotic writer—Chris Ensweiler, uncannily channeling you-know-who—rehearsing to break up with his mistress. The very funny script depends on the skilled actors’ commitment to sell the implausible plot, which they do. Skerritt takes one for the team, pushing the thankless Mighty Aphrodite-like mistress role to the far reaches of caricature, as required to make the story work.

The Unseen Hand, by Sam Shepard, takes place on the fringe of nowhere, where we find Crank #3, Blue Morphan (a jovial Anderson), inertly “cruising” the sagebrush in a magnificent rust-calicoed jalopy. It’s played on the most ambitious of the three sets, mostly occupied by the vast island of marooned car and detritus, backed by silhouettes of oil rigs against an open Western sky. The preposterous story involves the return of Blue’s two brothers from at least one other time period, and the arrival of a creature named Willy from another galaxy. Lass manages to make Willy’s copious exposition about the civil war on his planet entertaining through top-notch physical comedy and clowning skills; otherwise it would have been excruciating.

The show goes all-out on lighting (by Rick Paulsen) and meteorological effects as the universe colludes in Blue’s hallucinatory trip. Although I am not crazy about this particular play, I don’t expect to ever see a better production of it. ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $44 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Aug. 17.

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