The Unicorn monitors the electronic age.

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The Unicorn monitors the electronic age.

Adriana Sandoval's set design for the Unicorn Theatre's production of Arthur Kopit's BecauseHeCan almost tells more of the story than the playwright. The Elliots, Joseph (Stuart Rider) and Joanne (Melinda MacDonald), have a home on Park Avenue, and their living room is like an austere hotel lobby. Black leather and chrome dominate the symmetrical space, which is broken up only by two impossibly large urns. It's not very warm, but it's the perfect terrarium for these self-important members of New York's elite.

Contrast this with the high-tech rat's nest Sandoval has designed for the couple's nemesis, Costa Astrakhan (Ry Kincaid), and it's clear that the Elliots' Architectural Digest dreams are about to fall apart in a David Lynchian nightmare. That costume designer Atif Rome puts Astrakhan in the same black leather as the Elliot's furniture is telling as well. Astrakhan is a young writer whose charisma and sexual energy the Elliots mistakenly perceive as a reflection of their good taste. For a brief time, he becomes a new accessory in their salon when, in fact, he's like an airborne virus in designer sunglasses.

Kopit's original title for the play was Y2K, a catch phrase that was oh-so-ominous about two years ago but now is as dated as "You go, girl." Even the setting of the play has been altered since the Unicorn program was printed. A strip of adhesive that reads "New York City -- The Present" can be removed to reveal "The summer before the turn of the century."

Anyone with a screen name (or three) can tell you that the paranoia is now. Every bit of spam junking up in-boxes seems to emanate from somewhere out there where they know everyone's preferences for colors, magazines and sexual positions. Kopit's premise, stated decisively by Astrakhan, equates an Internet password with the code into a soul.

As the play opens, Joseph is being grilled by two FBI agents (Darryl A. Stamp and Walter Coppage) whose evidence isn't revealed until the final meltdown. Over the first of many cocktails later that night, the Elliots are naturally rattled, but not any more than they would be if they were seated in the wrong section of Le Cirque. They're too caught up in the prestige of their respective positions at Random House and Sotheby's to think that anything untoward can affect them.

And then Astrakhan leaps into their cushy den. He's been seen and heard throughout the play on a video screen and in voiceover (perhaps a bit too obviously; he's so aggressively sinister that nothing comes as a surprise later), but in person, he's a carnal magnet even Joseph might find attractive. In the threesome's interactions, there's a weird aura that something is wrong with this picture. Is he 15 years old, as he says, or a baby-faced 25? Did he live out the sexually explicit writing sample he turned in for the class Joseph teaches, or did he make it up? When Joanne begins to disrobe in front of him, it seems that Astrakhan is a legend in his own mind, but what follows is less legendary than tawdry.

Director Cynthia Levin elicits good performances -- in MacDonald's case, a very good one, an almost shocking leap for an actress known more for musicals. The lighting and sound designs of Jeffrey Cady and Roger Stoddard are sharp and sinewy. Yet all of the assets can't disguise the fact that Kopit's play, while effectively creepy, isn't particularly solid. Even at eighty minutes, it's overwritten. (A second interrogation at Joseph's office doesn't really add anything.) And the expletives -- especially the much-used adjective "fucking" -- have never sounded more gratuitous. If the point isn't made without an f-word, the f-word doesn't seal the deal.

Yet as audience members retreated to the lobby, they were clearly shaken. "I'm going to go home and shoot my computer," said one woman. Perhaps a play rife with anxiety is a fitting antidote to an anxious time. Morning routine: Ethnic families are often depicted on stage and screen as having zero tolerance for silence. Whether they're Italian, African-American or Jewish -- like the Feldermans in Missouri Repertory Theatre's Morning Star -- their gatherings are a time to confront or cajole one another, with little opportunity to contemplate the meaning of these actions. Such is the curse of Sylvia Regan's play, an insanely dense series of plot points that hangs on the talented actors like a backpack full of bricks.

The play follows the Felderman clan from 1910 to 1931. Heading up the family is the widowed Becky (Geraldine Librandi); at the play's onset, she has three unmarried daughters (played, eldest to youngest, by Molly Jo McGuire, Amy J. Carle and Stephanie Timm) and a thirteen-year-old boy (Tony Cordaro) on the brink of his bar mitzvah. They're set upon by an eccentric crew of hangers-on that includes an anxious Marxist (Barry Finkel), an idle entrepreneur (Frank Anderson) and a young teacher (Jeffrey Cribbs) prepping Becky for her citizenship exam. By the close of the play, two are lost to historic events -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and World War I -- while the survivors grow bitter, rich or fat with pregnancy.

At the last preview before opening night, Risa Brainin's direction provoked nothing to quibble with; it's just that the play contains so much exposition that the silences of her ingeniously staged scene changes are a welcome respite. In one scene in the second act, for example, no fewer than five major life revelations roll by as if propelled by a conveyer belt. The pacing gives neither the characters nor the audience any reasonable time to process them.


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