In 1981, I attended the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where a new writer made a stunning debut with a series of monologues grouped together under the title Talking With. The festival was abuzz. Who was this mysterious writer whom no one had ever met, about whom nothing was known and who seemed to have sprung full-blown from the head of Jon Jory, ATL's artistic director? It was rumored that "Jane Martin" was a pseudonym, most probably for Jory himself or his wife, Jessica.

Nearly 15 years later, Jane Martin remains a puzzle. Every couple of years, a new play appears in Louisville under her name, but her identity remains in the shadows. Now Actors Theatre of Phoenix has unveiled Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts in Herberger Theater Center's Stage West, and it contains this curious piece of dialogue: "Who are you? I have to know! How do I know you exist? How do I know I exist?" To which is given the reply: "If you don't exist, you're gonna save a lot on toilet paper."

Whether Martin exists or not, Actors Theatre of Louisville continues to produce the plays she churns out, including Vital Signs in 1990, Cementville in 1991, Coup/Clucks in 1993 and her most recent, Keely and Du, last year. Criminal Hearts was first produced in 1992 by the Theatre Company of Detroit, and subsequently by the GEVA Theatre in Rochester, New York. Although Actors Theatre of Louisville announced it for 1994, plans changed, and so it has fallen to Actors Theatre of Phoenix to keep the ball rolling.

If Jane Martin did not exist, would we have to invent her? The present play suggests perhaps not. For slight comedies, we already have the master of slickness, Neil Simon. Criminal Hearts strains to tickle us, often at the expense of credibility.

Martin writes character and comedy, often with a Southern sensibility, reminiscent of Carson McCullers, but not so grotesque as, say, Beth Henley. Here's the story: Ata is a wacky compulsive whose husband, Wib, has just left her. A female burglar, Bo, appears on the moonlit fire escape, sliding open the window and creeping silently inside, until she stumbles, kicking something metal, whose clattering startles Ata awake. Once they negotiate the lights, we discover that Ata's departing husband has wiped her out. Except for the litter of empty Dr Pepper cans and pizza boxes strewn across the barren apartment, all that remains is the mattress on the floor on which Ata was sleeping. Since she has nothing to steal, Ata offers to write the burglar a check.

Improbably, Ata disarms Bo, and orders her to tie herself up. Of course, the only thing available is the telephone cord, and after Bo is tied up, there is no way to call the police. Once Ata has possession of the gun, her allergic paralysis sets in, and she cannot pry her finger from the trigger, which dictates that she must carry it for the remainder of the two-hour play. By the time Bo exclaims in exasperation: "Let's get real here!" we have begun to suspect that reality is a vain hope.

There are a few funny lines. Chastising Bo for her four-letter language, Ata declares: "Foul language is the last refuge of people with a limited vocabulary." To which Bo cries: "I got a limited vocabulary!" In an attempt to create an unforgettable character that even Reader's Digest wouldn't credit, Martin has endowed Ata with a naivet that is maddening, obtuseness parading as kookiness. Impervious to the idea of betrayal, she thought her lawyer husband merely absent-minded when he would come home with only one sock. After she discovers panties in his raincoat pocket, she rationalizes that they are evidence in a case, and he has brought them home to see if she can identify where they were bought. If Ata is as stupid as she seems to be, it is hard to work up much sympathy for her plight.

Before long, the possibilities between the two female characters have been exhausted, so we meet both Robbie, Bo's accomplice, and Wib, Ata's husband. How and why is too boring to elucidate, and unnecessary, anyway, since this desperate comedy is not about plot.

It is meant to be about female bonding, although the attempt is so crude, it is difficult to imagine women responding to dialogue like: "You're a woman! I'm a woman, too! Look, I have breasts!"

The comedy exists to give the author a chance for some rather lame male-bashing. Explaining how a woman behaves, Ata advises: "You smile, you agree, you praise him, you go down on him and then he marries you."

Her husband, Wib, is drawn as such a one-dimensional character that one can barely pay attention to his cartooned sexism. Not only does he call her "Babe," but he declares: "It's my money! A woman doesn't have to be a human being. I don't have empathy--that's yours. I don't have intuition--that's yours. The stuff is mine!"

I know there are oafs of a like kind wandering the roach motels of pickup bars, but they are rarely seen purchasing tickets at the Herberger box office. Most of the audience's laughter at the Sunday matinee had the guilty tee-hee of the ladies' room, as if embarrassed for their husbands to hear.

The dependable director David Vining has done all within his power to help the actors achieve three-dimensional belief, but to make this script credible would demand an inspired performance in the central role from the likes of the late Gilda Radner or the demented fixations of an Elaine May. Unfortunately, the role of Ata falls to the considerable talents of Judy Rollings, a funny waif who bravely struggles to make Ata tolerable. She is surrounded by a talented cast, especially Lisa Fineberg Malone, who is able to ground her burglar in a Chicago earthiness. Mike Prindiville is suitably hot in the scummy role of the professional con man, but there's not much Ben Tyler can do to make that brutish husband rise above a feminist sermon.

Still, if you can get past the preaching and the stereotypes, this provides an evening that has a few laughs, although not nearly on the sophisticated level of, for example, Roseanne.

Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Jules Feiffer. He is now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.

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Marshall W. Mason