Carnival of souls 

Liliom at 7 Stages Back Stage Theater

A hundred years ago, carnival carousels were hotbeds of glamour and flirtation, or so the 1909 drama Liliom would have us believe. Produced by New York's Flying Carpet Theatre at 7 Stages, Ferenc Molnar's play evokes a time when a "love 'em and leave 'em" guy like Liliom (Matthew Seidman), a carnival barker and carousel operator, could be a kind of bad-boy sex symbol. How the status of the carny has fallen.

Liliom offers an eccentric portrayal of female devotion in spite of masculine brutality. The play opens after Julie (Hilda Seidman), a young serving girl, takes a ride on Liliom's carousel, and their casual contact leads both of them to quit their jobs and get married. It's more complex than love at first sight, though, since Liliom bristles at the prospect of taking a conventional job, despite Julie's unhappiness. The couple suffers the domestic blahs until Liliom attempts a daring robbery in a thrilling sequence.

Last year, Flying Carpet presented The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo, an ingenious original tale of a Houdini-era illusionist. The company clearly grooves on the kind of old-fashioned stage effects and choreography that fires the imagination. Liliom, however, proves a little obstinate for this troupe's brand of stripped-down spectacle. As a vintage text (Molnar's play inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel), Liliom proves both solid and stodgy, being well-grounded in the details of lower-class Budapest but hampered by a slow, repetitive first act. Some mannered, artificial acting in the opening night performance didn't help.

Liliom improves significantly in the second act as a supernatural element provides a fascinating payoff to the feel-bad dreariness of the play's earlier portion. Director Adam Koplan achieves some marvelous effects, like the wordless choreography that simulates circus acts, shooting galleries and other attractions on the midway. The set's billowing tent sinks to the floor and evokes an ethereal cloudscape in the second act. Michael McQuilken's live music is moody and contemporary, sort of like a soundtrack composed by Lou Reed.

The thought-provoking twists of Liliom's second half, including a final image of delicate loveliness, go a long way to redeem the limitations of the first act. In Liliom's vision of the carnival, merry-go-rounds have never seemed less merry.

Liliom. Through Aug. 27. $15-$20. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. 7 Stages Back Stage Theater, 1105 Euclid Ave. 404-523-7647. www.7stages.org.

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