Moonshot and Cosmos

A Poster of the Cosmos

A Poster of the Cosmos

Tom … John Dossett

The Moonshot Tape

Diane … Judith Ivey

For the few brief seconds that open each of the two one-act plays that together form “Moonshot and Cosmos,” a galaxy of stars washes over the stage. If playwright Lanford Wilson is suggesting he can put the universe into a stark Manhattan police station or a seedy Ozark Mountain motel room — the locales of these monologues — his hubris just might be deserved.

After the excesses of his last Broadway effort, “Redwood Curtain,” Wilson has pared down his scope, if not his vision. No moving forests, no overheated dialogue, just two well-honed character studies at once idiosyncratic and universal. Even as their tales take weird turns, the plight of these characters struggling to reconcile their pasts, both distant and near, is all too recognizable.

In the first play, “A Poster of the Cosmos,” a tough-talking, working-class baker sits alone at a small table in what is soon revealed to be an interrogation room of a Manhattan police station. Tom (John Dossett) embarks on an angry, rambling tale that only gradually reveals the reason for his arrest: He was caught mutilating the corpse of his just-deceased lover in a hospital AIDS ward.

What prompts his bizarre behavior is made clear as the character tells his story of love, loss, heartbreak and survivor’s guilt. It’s a powerful monologue with more than a few surprises — even the title is a pun, as fans of Gotham’s old soccer team will know — and Dossett parcels out the elements with expert timing. His performance of the desperately sad Tom is gripping.

Even better is “The Moonshot Tape,” in which a famous and long-exiled short-story writer returns to visit her small hometown in Missouri to move her aged mother into a nursing home. The premise of the play is that Diane (Judith Ivey) is being interviewed by a timid (and unseen) young reporter from the local high school newspaper.

Doing her best to answer the silly questions provided by the interviewer — and to kill a bottle of vodka while doing so — Diane offers progressively more intimate and truthful insights into her character as she rambles on about how her present life is shaped by her past.

In a bravura performance both comic and poignant, Ivey reveals the dark secret surrounding her character’s escape: Diane fled town the day after high school graduation, ending years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Everything that follows — and indeed much follows — has its roots in that torment.

Rather atypically, director Marshall W. Mason underplays his hand here, and the production benefits. With the exception of a tad too much bluster at the beginning of “Cosmos,” the characters make their statements with just the right hint of theatrical embellishment. John Lee Beatty’s simple sets provide the appropriate atmosphere.

“Moonshot and Cosmos” might be a stepping stone between “Redwood Curtain” and Wilson’s next full-length play, but it’s a welcome one. Few plays currently on the boards can match the drama of these two confessionals.

Moonshot and Cosmos

Production: NEW YORK A Circle Repertory Company presentation of two one-act plays by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason.

Crew: Sets, John Lee Beatty; lights, Dennis Parichy; sound, Donna Riley; costumes, Walker Hicklin; original music, Peter Kater; production stage manager, Denise Yaney. Artistic director, Tanya Berezin; managing director, Abigail Evans. Opened May 3, 1994, at Circle Rep. Reviewed April 29; 160 seats; $ 35 top. Running time:1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

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