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Passion Plays 

Dad's short plays get hot, bothered

You go into Dad's Garage Theatre's 8 1/2 x 11 ready for an evening of plays about lust and love -- hence the subtitle The Birds and the Bees. But the short play festival, despite finding some laughs along the way, keeps returning to themes of self-absorption and failed attempts at intimacy. Every year, Dad's Garage commissions short works from local playwrights as well as high-profile out-of-towners for 8 1/2 x 11. In 2006, are they trying to give love a bad name?

The Birds and the Bees gets the requisite jokes about boners and pubic hair out of the way with "Go Ask Phallus" by Brian Griffin. A voice-over actress (Eve Krueger) endures Viagra-esque commercials and sex-centered game shows until she launches into a self-aggrandizing diatribe that suggests Griffin targets artistic pretensions as much as carnal peccadilloes.

A.E. Edwards' "The Red Zone" depicts the alternating interior monologues of a seething married couple (Krueger and Joe Sykes) after a blowup at Wal-Mart. The pair could represent the future of the blissful new lovers (John Benzinger and Alison Hastings) in Kyle Jarrow's "Love Will Keep Us Together," in which intimate pillow talk turns comically clingy and creepy.

Ross Maxwell's playful "The Illusionist," featuring Sykes and Steve Emanuelson, presents a whirlwind gay romance in the form of an old-school vaudeville magic show. In a clever sequence of puns, breakups become "disappearing tricks" and more. Alice Tuan's "Scratchy Makes Itchy" presents a quasi-surreal portrait of a woman trying to slake both a literal itch and an erotic one. An 8 1/2 x 11 regular, Tuan typically provides vague little puzzles with at least one great sight gag -- in this case, an elderly mother decked out like a Star Wars character.

Things take a more serious turn with Lauren Gunderson's "Heart. Beat." during which a jogger (Hastings) discusses the physiology of the heart and her own emotional turmoil with a lover away at combat. Steve Yockey's disturbing "Snuff Film" juxtaposes a man obsessed with an Internet snuff film and a yuppie couple laughing off the feelings of an obsessed stalker. As usual for Yockey's plays, "Snuff Film" reaches an unnerving climax, but this one feels a little short to earn its onstage violence.

Perhaps none of the evening's self-involved characters can match the heroine of Lisa Kron's superb "43/13," who literally talks to herself. A 43-year-old single woman (Hastings) lays her relationship problems at the feet of her 13-year-old self: "If you weren't so stupid, maybe I wouldn't be so stupid." Kron's funny banter explores fascinating notions of maturity and whether people ever really change, or just grow older. You can place yourself within such a thought-provoking premise.

Despite highlights such as "43/13," the hit-and-miss quality of The Birds and the Bees serves as a reminder that 8 1/2 x 11 seems to work better as a sign of Dad's Garage's national standing than a fully rounded evening's entertainment. It's certainly prestigious for the theater to commission new plays and bring rising talents together, but the individual plays don't always live up to their authors' reputations. Jarrow, for instance, has won off-Broadway acclaim for his A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, but his "Love Will Keep Us Together," however clever and crisp, isn't especially memorable.

Dad's Garage's commissioned festival in 2004, 8 1/2 x 11: Punk Rock Will Never Die, remains the best, having the strongest lineup of plays and most versatile ensemble (including Benzinger and Hastings). Maybe such themes as "love and lust," or "censorship" as in last year's show, prove a little too broad, while the more specific "punk rock" brought out more passionate opinions and inventive ideas.

Still, 8 1/2 x 11: The Birds and the Bees provides a lively evening of mostly pleasant surprises, such as the amorous animated robots of Christian Danley's "Robot Love." Overall, its generally amusing glimpses of the heart in action leave you feeling that love connections aren't worth the trouble. Except that they are.

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