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THEATER REVIEW : A Welcome 'Specter' of Good, Old-Fashioned Gloom


Ghost stories no longer haunt us. Television's nightly lineup of horror can't even keep us awake.

But we don't dare drift during Don Nigro's "Specter," the second of two short plays at Hollywood's Theatre/Theater.

The situation is a commuter's nightmare: During a thunderstorm, a college English teacher spots a young woman in a white dress running across the highway. He swerves. The car plunges into a ditch. Like refugees, they must wait for the storm to pass before seeking rescue.

In a mere hour, the play takes us on a spellbinding psychological journey. There is minimal physical action. Soaked, she sits in the back seat; sullen, he remains in the front. Nothing but dialogue compels our attention.

This tour-de-force achievement depends on the two actors, of course, and Elizabeth Morehead and Daniel Franklin are riveting. Alternately seductive and hostile, wise and childish, Morehead's abandoned creature resembles a mythic enchantress.

Franklin's dull character, wedded to habit, is less expressive at first. By director Diana Williams' design, he maintains a low-key manner, enduring the storm until his life's routine can resume. If Morehead is the goddess, he is every man. Provoked by the girl's incessant chatter, Franklin's darker self subtly emerges. The mystery of character turns into a nightmare.

"Specter" is preceded by Dorothy Parker's staged short story "Here We Are," about a nervous honeymoon couple on a train. It's minor Parker: The virginal bride fears sex; the groom nervously seeks an opportunity. By the end of the trip, their future is pathetically obvious. Beth Colt and Maury Sterling capably deliver the contrived chatter.

In the same space on weekends, while suffering through "My Condition" by the usually reliable Mike Farkash, you'll want to shout, "Is there a play doctor in the house?"

Axel (an over-the-top Warren Sweeney) is desperate for a son from his wife (a gratefully understated Helen Wilson), who must remain in a wheelchair to avoid yet another miscarriage. While waiting for the birth, Axel entertains himself by playing doctor with a private nurse (Nancy Magathan, struggling heroically). The nurse's street-smart boyfriend (a sneering Jace Kent) decides to sell the frustrated couple a stolen baby, then blackmail them.

Director Alec Doyle further obfuscates the chaos with an eclectic mix of performance styles, ranging from nursery school giggles to surrealism to Theater of the Ridiculous.

* "Here We Are" and "Specter," Theatre/Theater, 1713 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. $10. (213) 469-9689. Ends Oct. 27. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

* "My Condition." Saturdays,8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. $10. Ends Sept. 26. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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