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A CurtainUp Review
Power Plays
Power Plays is a highly entertaining and welcome tribute to the enduring power of the comic ingenuity of Elaine May and Alan Arkin. For those old enough to remember, this deliciously satisfying triple decker will evoke happy memories of the legendary Second City where May and Arkin and other masters of the absurdist comic sketch honed their skills.

Happily Arkin and May's collaboration is not just a trip down memory lane. Their three variations on the effect of an evening's plan gone awry on the emotional power balance between people as unalike as a tuna fish sandwich and sushi are right on-the-1998-button.

And so are May and Arkin who do double duty as authors and performers (triple duty in Arkin's case since he also directs). Their dialogue is fresh as the flowers in the vase of the first of Michael McGarty's three sets which adroitly support the wonderfully controlled over the top action. Ms. May especially is in remarkable physical shape, at one point actually doing several push-ups pausing only to pick a speck of lint off her Persian rug. Given her looks, this inspired bit of business plus the numerous gym-related one-liners, she obviously knows a thing or two about worshipping at the altar of fitness.

The three plays are connected not only by the theme of the overall title but by the bravura performances given by Arkin and May and their talented offspring (Arkin's son Anthony and May's daughter Jeannie Berlin). Their immaculately timed interaction transform what might otherwis be just a comedy sketch to the level of richly observed and stageworthy play.

The first two plays, "The Way of All Fish" and "Virtual Reality" -- one set in an office that's furnished with all the comforts of an upscale home and the other in a black hellish warehouse -- are funhouse mirror views of the same reversal of power. The last and most schtick-driven play rounds up Arkin, May and their partners into a zany operatic farce that errupt into a song and dance finale that's as smart as it's splendidly ridiculous.

In "The Way of All Fish" -- named for a type of male fish that can turn into a female if bested by a more powerful male -- we have Ms Aasquith (Elaine May) an executive of some never defined enterprise and Miss Riverton (Jeannie Berlin) her meek secretary settling in for a rare take in dinner at the office. Everything about the office spells power -- from the Directoire desk and subtly upholstered couch to the remote clicker controlled wine and music cabinets. And everything about Ms. Asquith screams authority as everything about Miss Riverton quietly says mousy underling. The highlight of this one upmanship is when the secretary, given carte blanche to order what ever she wants from the Japanese restaurant, becomes a mere mouthpiece for her boss' rapid fire amendments and additon to the menu.

Without giving away the ending, once the food arrives and several glasses of wine take effect, the mouse begins to roar by revealing her not so mousy fantasy of obtaining fame through killing someone famous. Ms. Berlin's deadpan analaysis of the dangers of committing murder is accompanied by the increasingly visible discomfort on Ms. May's face.

The Arkins' "Virtual Reality" is also a gem of nuanced interaction. This darkest (in both setting and content) of the three plays, it brings together two strangers hired to unload and possibly dispose of merchandise as unspecified as Ms. Asquith's executive position. The surroundings suggest something not quite legal. De Recha (Alan Arkin), like Ms. Asquith, likes to be in control and so insists on a trial run of the job. Lefty (Anthony Arkins) gets into the full swing of the weirdness with so much ingenious pantomine that the absurdity of it all is indescribable and must be seen to be appreciated.

For those who've seen this year's revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, -- (it co-stars another Arkin Son, Matthew, and was directed by Alan in its original version), -- the four-hander by Elaine May will be a somewhat recognizable and more up-to-date variation of that play's famous doctor scene. In this case the doctor is a dentist named Kesselman.

Instead of numerous doors for farcical entrances and exits, the brick wall conveniently slides to hide and reveal Dr. Kesselman's reception area and the room housing the tools of his trade. The doubling of the cast also doubles the concerns coverered and takes everyone to new heights of zaniness. At the heart of the proceedings we have Dr. Kesselman's need to have one "boyish-goyish" sexual adventure with his new, well padded assistant who was one half of a sister porno act. This dizzy (seeming) mini-skirted, blonde-wigged assistant is of course none other than Elaine May and the dentist whose lustful gazes speak volumes, Arkin Senior. (Arkin and May have elevated the meaningful look to such a level that they could probably sustain an entirely worldless play).

Alan Arkin and Jeannie Berlin are the agents for putting the kebosh on this plan to make up for a nose-to-the-grindstone lifetime. He has decided that this is the night he must tell his father that he wants to drop out of dental school and into the gay life. She has a dental emergency. The luncacy resulting from this four-way collision is as sharp as it is silly.

As in all three plays, bon mots fly all over the place. Wanda, the phobic patient who happens to be a psychologist (what else?) tells the troubled young Harry "Everyone is crazy. It only means you have the imagination to see beyond the end". She also declares that maturity is signalled by "the ability to bear guilt." Dr. Kesselman's interest in Sue? ""I'm not interested in love but in sex -- sex means good time."

If I have one quarrel with this amusing evening it's that it could have used Ms. May's personal trainer to help trim the fat that make each piece, but especially "Virtual Reality", drag on just a bit too long. This quibble aside, go see it and enjoy!
Three one-act plays directed by Alan Arkin
"Virtual Reality" by Mr. Arkin
"The Way of All Fish" and "In and Out of the Light" by Elaine May
With Arkin and May and Anthony Arkin and Jeannie Berlin
Sets: Michael McGarty
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Costumes: Michael Krass
Manhattan Theater Club, at the Promenade, 2162 Bway, at 76th St. (580-1313).
Performances begin 4/14/98; opens 5/11
Lead roles taken over by Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentice
Closing 1/13/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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