The action in Light:Damage is less profound than coincidental.

An Acquired Art 

The action in Light:Damage is less profound than coincidental.

One of the traits that separates those who survive from those who succumb is a sense of humor. A comedic spin on a tragic circumstance can do more first aid than all the sympathy in the world. This is the prime ingredient of black comedy. It's what makes such works as The Sopranos and Sam Shepard's True West so vital. It is also a skill that requires the precision of an eye surgeon. Black comedies that are up to snuff are much rarer than pure comedies or dramas; they're an acquired art.

Alan Brown certainly gives it a shot in his play, Light:Damage, this year's winner of the Unicorn Theatre's national playwriting competition. A helping of two seemingly unrelated acts -- a car wreck and the rape of a male high school student -- unite into a complete sandwich only in the final seconds. And though what happens to the players is less profound than coincidental, the events do pose a question: What role do fate and timing play on the ultimate road more traveled?

In the first act, a couple in their 50s are leaving a party. Henry (Richard Alan Nichols) is driving, and his wife, Bev (Nancy Marcy), is the chatty passenger. As they're reconstructing the preceding dinner, commenting on the shrimp and their hosts, they're notified that their store's burglar alarm has been tripped. Henry soothes Bev's nerves by assuring her that he has paged their new employee, Brad, who is trusted to make things right.

Out of that nowhere whence most violence comes, a car swerves into their path, tossing them about, cut and bleeding. The car crash itself is technically amazing; with key sound and light cues and fast action on the part of the actors in the dark, the lights come up on Henry and Bev post-wreckage. He is pinned chin-to-chest to the steering wheel, and she is wrenched to the right with blood seeping from her forehead and a likely broken pelvis.

The actors are frozen in these positions for the rest of the act, given only vocal inflections and one arm each for gestures. Brown then takes cues from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and moves the couple in and out of shock as they discuss -- of all things in these straits -- their sexless marriage and their daughter's obesity. The need to say and hear "I love you" makes sense; they don't know whether these are their final moments. But the other talk comes off as a means of satisfying a writer's jollies and doesn't add up to much. Even with Marcy's and Nichols' flawless performances, the scene becomes rather desperate.

Brown brings out Brad (Brian Paulette) at the top of act two. His face has been beaten to a bloody pulp and his pants have disappeared. He has been raped by a group of randy athletes. One of the posse who didn't participate is Chad (Shawn Halliday), who has stayed behind in an inexplicable show of kindness. Chad's instinct is to take care of Brad; he clothes and cleans him, all the while reminding him that they know each other from Boy Scouts and Spanish class.

Chad wrests a confession from Brad that the latter boy is gay. Though Chad lectures him about the moral quality of such a state, his persecution is transparent; his heterosexuality is not exactly concrete, and he's both fascinated and repelled by Brad's illicit tales of sexual liaisons with a teacher and a Scoutmaster. Once they move to Chad's car (from the rotating cornfield that has been beautifully constructed by set designer Adriana Sandoval), they share a kiss that blows Chad's "he doth protest too much" cover. And then they tear out of the cornfield onto the dark road only to ...

It doesn't come as much of a surprise that these four lives meet head-on. The playwright says in an article found at www.playbill.com that Henry, Bev, Chad, and Brad "are connected by ... a single twist of fate." The concept of the invisible chains that link our lives to others' -- that whole "six degrees of separation" so perfectly rendered by John Guare in his play of the same name -- is not uninteresting or invalid. But here, it is too pat and flimsy to take the play anywhere.

When Henry sings a chorus of "Some Enchanted Evening" in the play's early minutes, it is believable that this guy pushing 60 might at that precise moment of post-party reverie conjure up a need to revisit South Pacific. Having Chad do the same thing after witnessing a rape is not about anything more than plot convenience, and it embarrassingly pushes all the wrong buttons.

The first act is especially well-directed by Cynthia Levin, who could utilize only about one-fifth of her actors' physical potential. There are no qualms about Sidonie Garrett's direction of act two, or about any of the performances. The whole team has given Brown's uneventful script a sheen it certainly doesn't have on the page.

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