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K2 at Onstage Atlanta

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot created one of the timeless images of 20th century theater in the tableau of two tramps standing alone on a desolate, horizontal landscape. Patrick Meyers' 1983 play K2 sets that tableau on end, after a fashion, by depicting two climbers stranded on a hostile, vertical mountain face. Both settings capture the human condition in an indifferent universe.

Named for the second-highest mountain on Earth, K2 holds a unique place in theater as a stage play that hinges on action and survival. Two climbers, Harold and Taylor (played by brothers Jake and Luke Dreiling in Onstage Atlanta's production) suffered a mishap that has stranded them on a narrow cliff with limited supplies. There are two hours of daylight left and not enough rope for them both -- worse still, one of them has a badly broken leg.

Faced with virtually no chance that they'll both escape alive, the two men's thoughts turn to the meaning of their lives, in part to distract themselves from their deadly predicament. Around Harold's brash attempt to get more rope (Jake Dreiling scales the set until he disappears from view), they discuss women, racism, quantum mechanics and the nature of God. Meyers' writing has dated badly, particularly in cerebral Taylor's anti-materialist diatribes: "It's all about the gizmos, pal!"

In Onstage Atlanta's low-budget production, the dialogue could have been focused more narrowly on the men's grace-under-pressure attempts to survive. The superb mountaineering documentary Touching the Void created twice the tension with virtually no cheap philosophizing. The self-conscious writing does the actors no favors, and Jake Dreiling has trouble avoiding histrionics when his character starts losing his macho cool. Nevertheless, the players find an affecting moment at the end by avoiding eye contact for a sentimental bit of male bonding that combines both masculine reserve and affection.

You can't expect a small theater like Onstage Atlanta to match the Tony Award-winning set of K2's original production, but when the men are stricken by an avalanche of torn-up Styrofoam packing material, it's hard to suppress a laugh. At least the lighting design shows a certain elegance, especially in the colors of slowly diminishing daylight in the play's final moments. Despite Onstage Atlanta's game attempts to scale K2, the production falls short of reaching the material's dramatic summit.

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