A Serious Pair of Jokers

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ur differences are obvious. It's developing compassion that takes work. In an evening of two very different one-act plays (from Friday through Nov. 23), the actors at the Civic's Studio Theatre will fight through animosity to arrive at understanding.

Or will they? In "Never Swim Alone," two men call each other "buddy" and then start ripping each other's lungs out; in "Graceland," two women are tolerably polite to one another until it comes to the question of who gets to be first in line to visit the House of Elvis. (When the stakes are high, the knives get sharpened.)

Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's "Never Swim Alone" (which, as with "Graceland," the folks at the Civic first saw last year in Charlotte, N.C., during a national competition of community theaters) is one of the best examinations of male competitiveness (and phony male bonding) that you're likely to see in a contemporary play. It's a terrific script featuring Luke Barats and George Green as two macho posers competing for the attention of Lauren Waterbury as the Girl in the Bathing Suit.

Waterbury acts as referee (awarding points and calling fouls) as the two men strut their stuff in a series of amusing psychological battles that turn nasty, then funny, then brutal again.

Barats and Green's characters talk in staccato shots -- yelling over each other, stealing each other's lines, always angling for an advantage. At one point, Barats' character provides a list of reasons -- all pretty obviously false -- as to why he loves horses. (Oh, sure, he's a regular Marlboro Man.)

Then MacIvor's two guys argue about how important their jobs are, about how close each one is to a mutual friend, even about the clothes they wear. Green's character, though, has saved up his clinching argument: "Not only do I like horses, I love horses," he says. "I have ridden horses, I have ridden horses bareback, I have owned a horse, I have seen my horse break its leg and I have shot my horse. And not only have I shot my horse, I have made love in a stable."

At which point Barats' character has a one-line put-down that wins the round (even if the referee does have to whistle him for a foul). Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson will tread a fine line between humor and bitterness in MacIvor's not-so-absurdist play -- not to mention the need to direct traffic during all that rapid-fire dialogue.

The evening will start with Ellen Byron's "Graceland." It's 1983, and we're at the grand opening of the famous Memphis mansion when Bev and Rootie get in a tussle over who's going to be first in line to set foot on the carpets where once the King trod. Bev (played by popular Spokane actress Kathie Doyle-Lipe) sets up her tent for a three-day wait just as poor bedraggled Rootie (Ashley Cooper) comes wandering up. Predictably, each woman reveals problems with her marriage; predictably, they resolve their differences and achieve a kind of friendship (though not until after some emotional fireworks and an only partly resolved ending).

'We open with a play that has compassionate moments," says Green, "but these two women don't always get along -- it's always, 'We have to get ahead, we have to get our stake of land.'"

The two 50-minute plays are in contrasting genres, Green says: "'Graceland' is more accessible -- it has that contemporary realism. But then, after you get comfy with 'Graceland,' you get a non-traditional script like 'Never Swim Alone,' which is told in a non-linear way.

"At the end of the night -- and I say this as the director of 'Graceland' -- 'Never Swim Alone' is the more thought-provoking play. People are going to want to talk about this play afterwards ... It's about male competitiveness, yes, but also about guilt, possessiveness -- very recognizable things." "Swim" is told in a way that upsets expectations, Green says, "but there's still humanity around all the male competition."

We're at each other's throats, then we rest and pretend to get along, then we start squabbling again. In two distinct modes -- everyday realism in "Graceland," exaggerated satire in "Never Swim Alone" -- the Civic's evening of one-acts will put you in the mood for continued understanding. Or a perpetual standoff.

"Graceland" and "Never Swim Alone" will be performed in the Civic's Studio Theatre from Oct. 31-Nov. 23. Tickets: $15; $7.50, student rush. Visit www.spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507.

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Sat., June 26, 12 p.m.
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