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STAGE REVIEW : Steve Tesich's 'Square One': Witty, Creepy


Boy meets girl. Boy and girl move into a state-subsidized artists' co-op. Boy loses girl.

Steve Tesich's "Square One," at the Hudson Theatre, is not just another romantic comedy. It's set in a society that's under the shadow of some vaguely defined "Reconstruction."

The play is an intriguing blend of the creepy and the witty, with occasional dollops of the sweet. Though the evening is a bit too long in Toby Yates' staging, the ingredients are well-balanced.

When Diane (Brenda Varda) and Adam (Clay Crosby) meet at a dance, she's tense and he's self-assured. But their personalities are not just the products of their own inner resources.

Diane starts referring to all the old people she lives with, and how they keep her awake at night with their screaming. Adam says not to worry. Once the older generation is gone, there will be no more screaming.

Adam is a minor-league celebrity, a state artist third class, certified as a General Entertainer with a specialty in singing. He even has a job--as one of the warblers on a prime-time TV show called "The Patriotic Variety Hour"--and an apartment of his own.

Enough to turn a girl's head, although not completely. Diane is the first to tell Adam that she admires him more than she likes him, and that goes double for the "art" he creates. Still, she has to get away from all that screaming, and Adam appears to be programmed to find a wife, perhaps so he can move up into a larger apartment in the co-op. It's wedding bells for these two.

The marriage quickly turns sour. Diane is surprisingly tenacious in her efforts to retain a piece of her own personality. But those efforts aren't enough to prevent her from conceiving a child, more or less against her will. It all troubles Diane, for she's convinced that children aren't treated much better than old people in this world--and she's right.

The play isn't nearly as gloomy as it sounds, for Tesich's sense of satire is alive and kicking. It's in highest gear when Adam is on the job or when he's rehearsing for even more glorified employment as one of the President's 1,700 anointed TV spokesmen (one for each major TV market).

Crosby's eyes sparkle with the fervor of his calling, and he has the boyish looks and mock-sincerity that might actually make him an effective TV spokesmen. This kid handles his wife with kid gloves, which makes more plausible her failure to extract herself sooner.

Varda traces the many strands of Diane's mixed-up emotions with painstaking clarity. Her retorts to her hubby's platitudes singe. These two are worthy successors to Richard Thomas and Dianne Wiest, who created the roles in New York.

Michael Pearce's set is more lavish than the published script recommends. The couple's apartment is painted in bright, juvenile colors and decorated with mysterious numbers. It masterfully evokes the play's cartoonish humor and its sense of bureaucratic menace.

Tesich's work has sometimes been overheated. But this one is like an iceberg--it suggests more than it shows. While this production isn't quite as spare as the play itself, you can still feel the chill.

* "Square One," Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 20. $16. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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