Dumb-Dumb Shells

There's something unsettling about the overwrought lunatics created by playwright Richard Dresser. It isn't their crabby personalities or their limitless capacity for self-pity. It's not even their incessant whining about their tormented lives. And, in the current Actors Theatre of Phoenix production of Dresser's Gun-Shy, it certainly isn't the way they're brought to life.

Perhaps what's disturbing about Dresser's people is that they're so recognizable. These whacked-out folks are clearly extreme examples of us. If Dresser's writing were a little less farcical, this would be an enormously unfunny comedy, full of personal revelations from people we recognize as ourselves. But Dresser seems to know we're tired of hip, cynical spoofs of middle-age life and romance--maybe he's sick of them himself--and so he's drawn a hard-edged but still plausible farce about love. In Gun-Shy, it isn't the divorcees who are waging embittered battles; it's their subsequent partners.

Dresser's self-absorbed people are archetypal denizens of the go-go Eighties. Evie (Cathy Dresbach), a recently divorced woman, bores her dimwitted, neurotic new boyfriend, Carter (Nicolas Glaeser), with endless stories about herself and her previous marriage. Her ex-husband, Duncan (Richard Glover), is trying desperately to shack up with Caitlin (Christie Klein), a maniacally ambitious, anorexic gun-control activist who's two decades his junior. The first act is devoted to a discovery of these new couples; in the second, they're herded together for a showdown with a predictable outcome that's still fun to watch.

Evie's monologues are the best parts of Gun-Shy: While Carter's car is being torched by thugs, she's blathering about her only lesbian experience; while he's convulsing in fear over being handled by a male masseur or about filling a "specimen cup" at an insemination clinic, she's talking about her dissatisfaction with their relationship. When she feels that Carter isn't paying close enough attention to these harangues, she stabs him with a fork.

These bits are brilliantly written, and Dresbach doesn't squander a line. She manages to make the sometimes-shrewish Evie lovable in spite of her bitchy tirades. She and Glover exhibit strong chemistry as a couple, so that their inevitable reunion comes as something of a relief. Glaeser does what he does best, playing a hammy, neurotic fellow who's handed a lot of manic comic bits that involve making faces and braying. And everyone's occasionally upstaged by Dresser's writing, as with Glover's big speech at the denouement--the only serious moment in an evening that's otherwise all laughs.

If any criticism can be leveled at Dresser's comedy, it's that its outcome is a certainty, even as we're watching the opening sequence. Or that Dresser consider a new way of beginning his stories. I spent the first several minutes of Act One trying to remember where I'd seen Gun-Shy. I hadn't; I was recalling Dresser's opening segment from Below the Belt, which also opens with a couple sharing wacky dialogue, center stage, in a supper club.

In the hands of a less-talented director, this smart, lucid comedy could have been completely charmless. But ATP's stalwart Matthew Wiener maintains a sure grip on the script's breakneck pace while still providing the frenzied abandon it requires.

Susan Johnson-Hood's careful costume design is perfect, recalling the worst of 1980s chic: teal dinner jackets, woven neckties and every ladies' fashion worn with a scarf at the collar.

The whole thing is held together by Jeff Thomson's delightfully mobile set, which sends colorful signs plunging in from the flies to tell us where we are: "Spa," "Dining Room," "Revolving Restaurant."

With Gun-Shy, Dresser probably set out to make a point about the foolishness of love. But the resounding message here is how stupid people are. This late in the theater season, I've had all the messages and morals I can stand, and I was pleased to have been entertained instead by this well-acted, carefully funny piece of theater.

The Actors Theatre of Phoenix production of Gun-Shy continues through Sunday, May 16, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.