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Another new play gets cooked at the Ringside

I've really enjoyed cartoonist/musician Brian Walsby's manic, wordy comic-strip chronicles of punk culture and band life. At their best, his illustrated experiences in alternative music read like some strange combination of Harvey Pekar and Hunter Thompson as if drawn by MAD Magazine's Jack Davis.

Elsewhere, a few savage strokes of Walsby's pen mercilessly caricature a gallery of musical berserkers--apparently, including himself--when titanic musical egos go unmasked in ridiculous sneers, cocked eyebrows and extended tongues. (For examples, see the Web site for Manchild, a book of his collected works: )

That's what actor Candice Churilla brings to mind most in her first play, Sex, Drugs & Dinner . Using only the broadest characterizations, Churilla's inaugural work is a lampoon, one which focuses on a potty-mouthed cynic named Mandy who's purported to have the worst judgment in men, the worst marriage, the worst job and the worst collection of friends.

To these dubious superlatives we must make an undesired addition. Sex, Drugs & Dinner's premiere unfortunately takes place in what's presently the area's worst live theater venue.

That would be Ringside's hellish third-floor cabaret. Four months after theater audiences sweated through Kennedy's Children, the air conditioning still hasn't been fixed and ceiling fans taunt from above--but never turn. With windows closed to keep out the street noise the place is even more of a broiler, well before adding improvised theatrical lights to the mix.

Which only goes to prove what's good for bar sales is murderous for comedy. After the company held curtain for 15 minutes on opening night, an audience trapped in that heated, airless chamber had largely lost its sense of humor about the whole affair by the time the show began. As a result--at least in part--most of the profanity-laced japes in Churilla's opening scene shriveled up as though hit by a blowtorch.

If Ringside truly wants to befriend local theater, it shouldn't let another crowd into that room until someone's finally learned how to turn the heat off. Unless you're really into bikram comedy, I'd either call Ringside to see if they've fixed the problem before showing up or wait until Dinner is served at Skylight Exchange.

On the other hand, this piece of angry candy has more problems than the Ringside thermostat to contend with. Blue language doesn't automatically guarantee laughs, and broad-side-of-a-barn caricatures (including David Berbarian's emotionally manipulative boyfriend/husband and Steven Warnock's Miss Thang of a health club owner) grew exasperating well before their exit lines. While Mark Jeffrey Miller and Tim Cole amused as Mandy's redneck daddy, Mike, and Dick, her oily accountant on the make, J. Evarts didn't capitalize on her role as Poppyseed, her ersatz best friend.

Though Churilla has previously employed good comic timing, her delivery in the lead role fell too flat too often on opening night. Marking Mandy's descent, Churilla's increasingly joyless script took on the whiny quality of a lengthy recital of medical woes.

Maybe--just maybe--these problems will all have proven a mirage when this show finally opens in a room capable of achieving temperatures below three digits.

Cooler outdoor weather last weekend robbed Open Door Theater of that possible alibi in its dismal comedy,

Kerpow! A witty, alternative history of myth starts things promisingly enough in this locally-written attempt to give comics and superheroes the Reduced Shakespeare treatment. But four immature actors who can't seem not to shriek at us over most of the following 90 minutes somehow don't advance the exquisite subtleties of comic-book geekdom. And after Open Door's one-year hiatus from local stages, this unedited, slovenly-directed embarrassment doesn't make the case for its return. EndBlock

A Paradise It Seems , Wordshed Productions, Swain Hall, UNC, Friday-Sunday, $12-$8, 969-7121; The Amistad Saga: Reflections , African American Cultural Complex, Raleigh, Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 8, $10-$6, 250-9336; Footnotes Tap Ensemble , Carrboro Century Center, July 28, 7:30 p.m., $5-$3, 942-1954.

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