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THEATER REVIEW : 'Progress' Not Usual Romantic Comedy


"In Progress" has all the markings of the kind of romantic comedy that even intrepid theatergoers have seen thrice too often. But Shari Shattuck's smart play at the Matrix is a big cut above most this-one's-having-an-affair-with-that-one ditties.

A round robin of attractions centered on a man-woman writing team, his wife and their fictional alter egos, "In Progress" is about the way most folks dog paddle around in the moral gray area of contemporary relationships.

Shattuck makes this familiar terrain arresting because she doesn't oversimplify. Her honesty and perceptivity allow the contradictions to stand without watering down the theatricality.

When single screenwriter Haley (Shattuck) and married novelist Cliff (the magnetic Tommy Hinkley) get together to write a play, Cliff's wife, Kate (capable Carolyn Hennesy), soon sniffs out that there's more than acts and scenes between the two.

Haley and Cliff come up with a play about a woman with a husband and a lover. The gimmick is, it's a gender-flipped version of their own triangle, and we actually see the fictional work in progress come to life onstage. The lines between the two stories blur, though, as Haley and Tommy interact with their play's Mac (Ronn Moss), Avery (Christian Noble) and Rachael (Karesa McElheny).

If it sounds pat, it almost is. And Shattuck's character does tread perilously close to Plucky Girl Heroine at times. But what saves the play is Shattuck's knowingness and her self-ironic wit.

More important, Shattuck doesn't buy into the self-pity that plagues so many works about single women. Capable Haley may stew in her brew sometimes, but she does learn from her screw-ups and get on with it.

Like her heroine, Shattuck has distilled knowledge from whatever experiences she may have had and made artful fiction out of it. Unlike so many novice playwrights and solo performers, she doesn't use the stage for her own barely fictionalized autobiographical whining.

The script could still use some refining, though. The premise, for starters, doesn't wash. Why would a novelist and a screenwriter who haven't met suddenly be thrown together to write a play (not your most commercial of ventures), especially if there were no set topic?

There's also a Bogie-esque enigma in a white dinner jacket (the aptly laconic Spencer Beglarian) who floats, deus ex machina -like, in and out of the action. The role should either be cut or expanded, preferably the latter.

Director Michael Weiss' staging is clean and efficient, but he could be more adventurous. The play-within-the-play is also oddly miscast. Noble, McElheny and Moss each turn in respectable work. Yet there's no chemistry between this particular woman and these men.

* "In Progress," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept . 19. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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