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Darlene and the Guest Lecturer

DARLENE

DARLENE

Angela ….. Nancy Opel

Jim ….. Robert Stanton

THE GUEST LECTURER

Pat ….. Mary Ehlinger

Mona ….. Nancy Opel

Fred ….. Rex Robbins

Hartley ….. Robert Stanton

Prolific playwright A.R. Gurney makes a daring departure from drawing room comedies to a dark Pinter-esque landscape in “Darlene and the Guest Lecturer.” In these two one-acts (performed without intermission), the dramatist uses language exceptionally well and writes with a manic intensity that includes some disturbingly grotesque digressions. On new turf in search of a thriller, Gurney’s fertile imagination now explores grim new avenues of sardonic comedy, and he appears to be out of sorts.

In the half-hour sketch that serves as a curtain-raiser, Angela (Nancy Opel), a suburban housewife, finds an explicit pornographic note on the windshield of her car in a supermarket parking lot. The letter, illustrated with an ominous dagger and bleeding heart, is addressed to a mysterious “Darlene.”

Analyzing its contents with her husband, Jim (Robert Stanton), several possibilities are explored. Was Angela the victim of mistaken identity? Is there a stalker on the prowl, or did Angela fabricate the scenario to titillate her distracted husband while the kids are away at summer camp? The sexual ambiguity and its menacing undertones are not enough to satisfy, and the meager laughs emanate from paranoid reactions to phone calls, the expressive bewilderment of Stanton’s panicky husband and Opel’s evasively obsessed housewife.

After a piano interlude, the second and longer play approaches Grand Guignol. Hartley (again Stanton), the title character of “The Guest Lecturer,” is a U. of Ohio professor who is hired to speak for a community theater group on the subject of drama in America. The group’s artistic director, Mona (Opel), serves as an intrusively garrulous moderator but is really a manipulative seductress and co-conspirator of a murderous scheme.

After a long history of productions of Chekhov, Shakespeare and other worthy stalwarts, the group has moved on to human sacrifice, and Hartley’s on the menu. An abundance of philosophical and sociological metaphors tracing the origin of drama to Greek tragedy are merged with a good deal of pointed satire relating to the merits of regional theater.

Opel is a fetching comic actress who extends the keenly structured zaniness she displayed in last season’s “Mere Mortals.” Stanton valiantly portrays the threatened lecturer with zest, even to the point of a deplorably unfunny nude scene following a bloody castration.

In a nonspeaking role, Mary Ehlinger, seated at an old upright piano, provides occasional musical accents from silent screen chase music and war tunes to “Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here!” It is a strained comic device which seldom hits the mark. Rex Robbins has a thankless role as the maniacal board president who interrogates the victim.

John Rando had staged the sketches with an agreeably swift farcical pace to put it all behind us as quickly as possible. A spare single set serves as a functional suburban kitchen and lecture platform.

Darlene and the Guest Lecturer

(COMEDY; GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE; 360 SEATS; $ 36 TOP)

Production: NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. A George Street Playhouse presentation of two one-act plays by A.R. Gurney. Directed by John Rando.

Crew: Set, Rob Odorisio; costumes, David Murin; lighting, Dan Kotlowitz; music, Tom Cabaniss; stage manager, K.R. Williams. Artistic director, David Saint. Opened, reviewed Oct. 28, 1998. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

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