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THEATER REVIEW : Mamet Amuses but Leaves 'em Guessing : In 'The Woods,' a puzzling relationship progresses to mutual antagonism and hostility. The literary small talk is intriguing.


Trying to describe the first act of David Mamet's "The Woods" is like crotchety Morley Safer condemning contemporary art on "60 Minutes": "Why can't he paint a nice flower?" "Why don't his women look like women?"

In the case of "The Woods," in production at the Santa Paula Theater Center, the questions might include "Who are these people?" "Where's the plot?" and "Why should we care about them if they don't even care about each other?"

At the end of Act I, the question isn't what will happen in Act II, but will anything happen in Act II?

So how, then, to communicate that Mamet's play is often great fun, certainly entertaining, and like nothing that's been seen in Ventura County since the Santa Paulans presented "Waiting for Godot" nearly two years ago?

Like "Godot," "The Woods"--first produced in 1977, one year after Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and five years before his breakthrough "Glengarry Glen Ross"--is quite different from conventional theater, and a bit oblique. Unlike "Godot," anybody can follow it easily, though some may find more layers of depth than others.

Nick (Taylor Kasch) and Ruth (Krista Bakula) are off for a couple of days at Nick's lakeside cabin. They've recently become lovers (Ruth's word), and are taking the time to discover each other.

What the audience learns, early on, is that the two have little if anything in common: He's dyspeptic, probably misogynistic and from all appearances, a loner; she's superficial and talkative--bubbly to the point of popping. When he asks her to shut up, she would like to oblige him, but can't. When he asks her, later on, "Why did you come here?" many in the audience will pondering the same question. Somehow, that she's attractive and enthusiastic about this romance isn't quite enough. And what does she see in him, other than the opportunity to make him over?

In Act I, the two exchange small talk; so small that it makes the dialogue in an episode of "Seinfeld" sound like Greek philosophy. Further, they do so in a speech pattern that never lets you forget they're reading lines: The words are literary, repetitive and rife with clipped phrases and pregnant pauses. It's maddening until you get used to it, at which point it becomes, to say the least, intriguing.

The small talk continues in Act II. "Larvae are really eggs," he tells her, inaccurately. "I know that," she replies, lying.

The relationship shifts, from her trying to please an indifferent him, to mutual antagonism and hostility that eventually results in (shall we say) excitement. While curt, Hemingwayesque dialogue continues throughout, the stream of foul language identified with Mamet plays doesn't appear until Act III (don't worry, the acts are brief), when it spews from both mouths.

Kasch, Bakula and director Lena Frederick all commute from Ojai. He was last seen at Santa Paula in last year's "Blithe Spirit." The others are making welcome debuts with the company, now under the administration of artistic director David Ralphe.

Both performances are strong and assured, and Frederick's direction keeps the difficult play on a sure course. Also of note is the way that Frederick and set designer Jeff Garcia have turned the Santa Paula Theater Center "backstage" area into a thrust-stage theater of approximately 50 seats. In this case, it's a "thrust" stage in part because the actors are practically sitting in the front rows. Larry C. Wright has come up with some nice sound effects.

While clearly not for everybody, "The Woods" may appeal to more people than one might expect. For one thing, it's a great play to bring a date to--you'll be discussing it for some time afterward. More important, presenting Mamet in Ventura County is another important cultural step. It gives the local audience credit for craving something with a bit more bite than Neil Simon.


* WHAT: "The Woods"

* WHEN: Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 and Sundays at 7 through Feb. 12.

* WHERE: Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St., Santa Paula.

* COST: $7.50 general admission; $5 students and seniors.

* FYI: Note that this play includes some strong language. For reservations or information, call 525-4645.

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