Reality Sucks

You don't usually expect samuel beckett from a group of amateur playwrights, but you're always pleased to be proved wrong. Of the 14 plays in The Writes of Spring and The Bed Plays, most are predictably dull, anchored stupefyingly to reality. But a few startle you with their intelligent writing, their fine performances and, most important, their evidence of a reckless imagination at work.

The Writes of Spring is a program of five one-acts written by members of the Orange County Playwrights Alliance and produced by the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble. The Bed Plays are nine 10-minute plays produced by the New Voices Playwrights Workshop. Their gimmick: all the plays feature a bed.

It's notable that the gimmicky slate works better—and even more notable that among plays ostensibly about a bed, the best plays don't write down to the concept. Take John Lane's Borderline, the most twisted entry of the nine works in The Bed Plays. It plays like vintage Joe Orton, with the same lunatic irony and the same nightmarish sense that the inmates are running the asylum. This time around, it's Dr. Lambert (David Amitin in one of his four very funny, bizarre performances in The Bed Plays) and his two nurses, played by the same woman (Karen Clarke). The object of their disaffection is Edith Higgens (the very talented Leslie Williams), who has apparently been admitted to the hospital but can't get a straight answer out of these deranged characters. There's a Pythonesque, frenetic quality to Lane's writing, and while you wish he had something more profound to say, his play is still a joy, especially when its most jagged weapon winds up in the hands of the character we least suspect.

God's Upstairs (by Alex Dorman and Richard Freedman) seems just another in the long litany of Lonely Guy plays, the kind of fare network TV tries to pass off as entertainment every night. A bachelor (Amitin again, in a hilarious performance that makes the audience check the program to get this guy's name) pines about all the women he's had no success in bedding. But unlike their well-paid television counterparts, Dorman and Freedman write with a tart tongue and crisp insight. This bachelor's a dweeb, but damn if he's not a dweeb worth rooting for.

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Michael Buss' Uneasy Lies the Head is a lighthearted mythological foray in which Hypnos, Erotica, Thantos and Zoe (Sleep, Sex, Death and Life) compete for the crown of the Being Who Rules the Bed. There's some very intelligent, even ornate writing and a nice point that sweetly wraps up everything.

The lone Writes of Spring play that seems to aspire to more is Anna Winslow's The Encounter, in which Sigmund Freud finds himself aboard a train with Joan of Arc, giving Winslow the opportunity to compare Freud's rational brilliance with Joan's faith. Sadly, the great idea is obscured by utterly inarticulate direction.

The highlight of all 14 plays is Gina Shaffer's Splitting Endsin The Bed Plays. Two famous fairy-tale characters nod off for years and somehow wind up in the same bed. In something like Albert Camus meets the Brothers Grimm, both characters know they have roles to fulfill—stories to finish and lives, fictitious as they may be, to get back to. But Shaffer stops time, if not the entire body of folklore, with her play. Her two fanciful fairy creations (portrayed by Sean O'Donnell and the impossibly charming Theresa Reid) take action, bend the course of mighty narratives and rewrite their destinies. It's a very intelligent, very colorful small gem of a play, creative and utterly fanciful but still capable of delivering its compelling point: wake up and take responsibility for your life.

That's a perfect summation of this whole conversation about plays: Why settle for the bland, easy stuff that makes up our "real" lives when the enormous, uncharted realm of our own imaginations is still out there, waiting to be explored?

The Bed Plays at New Voices at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 225-4125. Sat., 1 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. $10-$12; The Writes of Spring at Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 738-3841. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $5-$10.

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