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There’s plenty going on off-Broadway (eliza dushku mention)

Elysa Gardner

Thursday 15 December 2005, by Webmaster

A double helping of Harold Pinter and a double shot of Leighs (Mike and Jennifer Jason) are on tap off-Broadway. USA TODAY hits the highlights. Patrick Breen, left, Carolyn McCormick and Thomas Jay Ryan star in Harold Pinter’s Celebration at the Atlantic Theater. Patrick Breen, left, Carolyn McCormick and Thomas Jay Ryan star in Harold Pinter’s Celebration at the Atlantic Theater.

When it was announced in October that Harold Pinter would receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, much of the press coverage focused on the playwright’s pointed social commentary, particularly his opposition to recent British and American foreign policy. But the works that earned Pinter, now 75 and ailing, this distinction are at least as noteworthy for what they tell us about the politics and psychology of personal behavior.

Pinter’s insights into human communication, or lack of it, form the thread linking the Atlantic Theater Company’s double bill of Celebration and The Room, running through Jan. 8. The latter play, Pinter’s first, is a short, bleak affair flaunting Samuel Beckett’s influence, with characters whose connection to reality and each other seems tenuous at best. Director Neil Pepe and his cast sustain a wry, creepily alluring atmosphere; Mary Beth Peil is especially fine as a woman struggling to repress panic in the face of crippling uncertainty.

In Celebration, Pinter’s most recent drama, the mood and setting are cheerier, at least on the surface. In a tony restaurant, three couples at two tables talk to, at and around their companions, sounding both crude and ostentatious, telling us way too much and absolutely nothing. More tension develops when a mutual acquaintance brings the parties together, but no one walks away challenged or enlightened - except perhaps a waiter who waxes forth on "the mystery of life," declaring, "I’m still in the middle of it. I can’t find the door to get out."

The desire to escape is also a driving force for the houseguests in Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party, being revived by The New Group at Theatre Row through Jan. 7. And no wonder: Their hostess, Beverly, is so overzealous she would give Martha Stewart a heart attack. Set in the roaring ’70s, this Party finds a small group of Londoners held captive in Beverly’s leather-and-sheepskin-adorned den while the titular Abigail, one guest’s teenage daughter, throws her own wild bash down the street.

Not to be outdone, Beverly, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a cross between a cockney Farrah Fawcett and a concentration camp guard, encourages her prisoners to eat, drink and be merry - with an emphasis on drinking. Playwright Leigh (no relation), whose penchant for quirky characters was evident in Oscar-nominated films such as Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake, ensures that what unfolds is both engagingly wacky and unsettling.

New Group artistic director Scott Elliott, a skilled interpreter of Leigh’s stage work, guides the company with brisk assurance. Elizabeth Jasicki and Darren Goldstein stand out as a dizzy nurse and her lunkhead of a husband, who both find Beverly’s antics seductive, though for very different reasons.

In The Other Side, a new play by Death and the Maiden author Ariel Dorfman, the nightmare scenario is darker, though not without flickers of humor. John Cullum and Rosemary Harris star as Atom and Levana, an older couple living near the border of two warring countries, where they occupy themselves collecting bodies and waiting for their long-lost son to return. When peace is declared and a mysterious young guard appears, their existence only grows more confusing and the mood more apocalyptic.

Dorfman’s post-absurdist script nods to original sin and will evoke various conflicts and catastrophes for viewers, not least of all the conflict in Iraq. But for all its disturbing aspects, Side, which runs through Jan. 15 at New York City Center, ultimately makes a case for the power of love and empathy, even in a troubled and disjointed world.

Also playing:

•Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. Young TV and film actors Eliza Dushku, Ari Graynor, Logan Marshall-Green, Ian Somerhalder and Kelli Garner are among those featured in this production of Bert V. Royal’s play, a hit at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. At the Century Center for the Performing Arts.

•Measure for Measure. The Shakespeare Globe Theatre of London’s touring production of one of the Bard’s most provocative comedies features an all-male cast, including Mark Rylance as Duke Vincentio, and other Elizabethan flourishes. At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Dec. 20-Jan. 1.

•Miss Witherspoon. Christopher Durang’s latest focuses on a spiritually dubious woman who ends up floating through the netherworld with a Hindu spirit guide, meeting Jesus and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings along the way. With Kristine Nielsen in the title role. At Playwrights’ Horizons Mainstage Theatre through Jan. 1.

•Mr. Marmalade. Six Feet Under’s Michael C. Hall plays the imaginary friend of a precocious 4-year-old girl - played by Meryl Streep’s adult daughter, Mamie Gummer - in Noah Haidle’s new play, directed by Michael Greif (Rent). At the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, through Jan. 29.

•The Trip to Bountiful. The Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Horton Foote’s classic stars Lois Smith as an aged woman on a date with destiny and Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, as her tense, controlling daughter-in-law. At the Peter Norton Space through Jan. 8.