Three in the Back, Too Clever by Half

In Three in the Back, Two in the Head, Canadian playwright Jason Sherman visualizes world peace, and it ain't John Lennon's kind. Sherman's bleak vision is of the old USA/USSR “mutual assured destruction” variety, but with a twist: it's not just about superpowers anymore. Now the little guys have the power to reduce our world to a lump of charcoal, and a rogue missile scientist named Donald Jackson, who works for the CIA, is the one who gave it to them. Seems Jackson's fanatical desire to spread the gospel of his “Star Wars”-type peace technology has been tweaked by some nasty little country into the power to reduce us all into the carbon from which we came. Government types get pissed-off, phone calls are made, and soon Jackson turns up cold with five slugs in him—and his son turns up at the Pentagon to find out why.

Three in the Back is a play of ideas, a dizzying plunge into the murky world of secret agents, scientists and military specialists, all united by the same twisted vision: peace through fear and intimidation. This is an irony that clearly fascinates playwright Sherman, and the passionate strength of his writing is often compelling. But the weight of these ideas ultimately drags his play down. Under Joanne Gordon's breakneck pacing, this one-act is 75 minutes of nothing but ideas, saddling its characters with huge chunks of ideology to hurl at one another as they blaze through time and across continents.

The ideas are exhilarating, but their sheer volume hogs the stage and prevents the characters from ever becoming fully realized human beings—an element crucial to the play's emotional climax of an estranged son coming to understand his brilliant, distant father. Ultimately, this very promising and intelligent play feels unfinished or abandoned, as if Sherman collapsed from exhaustion mid-draft under the fevered torrent of his own words.

Three in the Back, Two in the Head at the California Repertory Company at the Edison Theater, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 432-1818 or (562) 985-7000. Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m. Through Nov. 20. $20 (student and senior discount available).

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