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Byron Woods 

Fine choices

Don't let the antique veneer fool you. Playwright Harold Brighouse, director Blake Robison and actors Robert Breuler, Rachel Fowler and Jeffrey Blair Cornell all thread some pretty fine needles to make Hobson's Choice a working comedy.

In this 1915 work, Brighouse writes from the end of the Edwardian era about Victorian decline, 35 years before. The three grown daughters of Henry Hobson, an aging, obese and miserly shoe store manager with a fondness for drink, all know his ways too well to respect the "majesty of trade" and the "sanity of the middle classes" he claims to represent.

When told she's been fated to spinsterhood (and endless free labor in her father's shop), Maggie, the oldest, smartest and most defiant daughter, doesn't take matters into her own hands--she takes her time's social order and upends it. All things ultimately work out well because she does.

But the enterprise rests on fine lines. If Hobson's just a bit more intransigent than the man we see, you don't have comedy--it's drama, or tragedy instead. If the spirit of Willie, a bootmaker who'd be up-and-coming if he knew the proper context of his skills, were any more ground down, neither Maggie nor we could respect him and there'd be nothing left to make of him. Give Maggie just a bit more calculation, a bit less hope, and poof, she's Hedda Gabler.

But Breuler finds the balance between Falstaff and Lear, keening those hypocritical platitudes to his offspring before confiding how bogus they are to a boon companion at the pub. Cornell's initially woebegone Willie provokes laughter when he has to face his wedding night with Maggie alone, but he ultimately finds spine and acuity. Fowler's Maggie liberates both herself and him--all without turning into her recent iron namesake. The time, the social order of things, the characters' fortunes, all things turn--and they do so, miraculously, without crushing anyone. Just this once.

If you play it just right, it's comedy. And Playmakers does. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings

Arts for All Conference/Developmental Disabilities, Embassy Suites RTP, Dec. 4-5; Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, thru Dec. 7; Saturday Night Fever, Broadway at Duke, Dec. 3; Enloe Holiday Dance Concert, thru Dec. 6; Amahl & the Night Visitors, NCCU Theater/Long Leaf Opera/Savoyards, NCCU, thru Dec. 22; A Taffeta Christmas, Temple Theater, thru Dec. 21; The Wrights of Passage, EBZB Productions, Chapel Hill Museum, Dec. 5; Beyond Broadway: Lauren Kennedy & Jason Brown, BTI Center, Dec. 5-6; Dreams of Flight, N.C. Museum of Art, Dec. 6.

**1/2 Shopping and Fucking, Manbites Dog Theater--We've had second thoughts--and conclusions--about this controversial work. Using a menage a trois of scruffy, bisexual London clubbies--his version of a post-nuclear British family--playwright Mark Ravenhill attempts a dark comic assault on consumerism without frontiers: the reduction of all human needs and relationships to a string of individually packaged meals, pills and sexual encounters to be bought, sold and ingested.

The mercantile has metastacized in this world, and Ravenhill's characters dream of being owned, not loved--although most of their relationships more closely resemble rentals: a trade of physical and chemical negotiables for shelter, food and mediated intimacy. As a result, this 1996 work drips with fin de siecle dread, existential nausea--and nudity and repeated, graphic simulations of transgressive sexual behavior.

No wonder Mark (Amit Mahtaney) tries to get out from the start, attempting to simultaneously wean himself off drugs and other dependencies as well--including sex and relationships with apocalyptic mouseketeer Lulu (Sarah Erickson) and brittle, needy boy toy Robbie (Mike Sacks).

As the group implodes, Lulu and Robbie find comic desperation when left to fend for themselves in several subterranean trades. Meanwhile, Mark's increasing gestures of sexual self-abasement suggest needs he can't buy his way out of. Then Gary (Ryan Welsh), a young gay prostitute, further complicates interpersonal negotiations with demands that are touching at times, nearly horrifying at others.

Welsh provides some of the evening's best acting, even if he's upwards of a decade older than his character. But Lissa Brennan's gratuitous casting in the originally male role of Brian makes a thin joke of a character that should have reinforced the menace of a mercenary world. And are we really seeing emotionally stunted characters elsewhere--or just young actors of limited bandwidth? Are these addicts, or stylish--and hollow--simulations?

Clearly Ravenhill wants us to see our own dystopic world onstage. But Shopping seems stuck in an update of the old "10-in-one" carny show: a strange human zoo where lurid visions of the chemically, emotionally and sexually disabled seem just as sensationalized, packaged and vended in places as those Ravenhill rails against. Arguably, Shopping becomes at times an example of what it claims to criticize. Sexually shocking and thought-provoking, does it ever truly leave the reductive realm of freakshow?

Regional productions have previously explored the transgressive without exploiting actors or audience. Even without repeated on-stage simulations of anal sex, REP's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love took us further into darkness than Shopping ever does.

After the show, one patron asked another, "Do you feel like you've just been violated?" In retrospect, my best answer is, "perhaps not nearly enough." (Thu.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. Late show added, Fri., 11:15 p.m. $15-$10. 703 Foster St., Durham. 682-3343.)

* Nuncrackers, Meredith College--This last and least chapter in the Nunsense trilogy recycles dubious Catholic cliches and Christmas canards of similar, um, freshness. Why is a low-grade community theater script wasting the time of talented students in a college drama program? (Thru Sat., 8:00 p.m.; Sat. matinee, 2 p.m. Jones Auditorium, Meredith College, Raleigh. $8-$6. 760-2840.)

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