Throw me a line 

16 Routines pushes limits of patience

PushPush Theatre dedicates itself to the plays of Murray Mednick like a team of physicists doggedly pursuing new subatomic particles. In the science lab as in the theater workshop, if the group succeeds in unlocking the secrets of its quarry, a tremendous amount of energy can be released. PushPush certainly has offered dynamic productions of such confrontational Mednick pieces as Heads and Joe and Betty.

But lately PushPush's interest in Mednick seems like the kind of research meant to disprove a theory or to test the limits of what cannot be done. The playhouse's push through Mednick's work last fall reached Tirade for Three, a quirky and nearly abstract work that provoked thought and discussion. PushPush reaches its most advanced degree of difficulty yet with the perplexing 16 Routines, a show that tests nothing so much as its audience's patience.

In the midst of a successful career as vaudevillian, funnyman Martin Greenspan (Allen Hagler) has entered a near-catatonic state. "He went deadpan and never came out of it," remarks Beryl (Claire Bronson), Martin's stage partner and probable lover. The play finds Martin in a home for disturbed actors, and one visitor makes the inside joke, "This is an Equity house."

Among Martin's visitors are born straight-man Dr. Funk (Brad Brooks), sharp-tongued nurse Graves (Tiffany Brown) and the married comedy team of Max and Martha (Nathan Mobley and Jill Perry). Perhaps as a means of conveying Martin's scrambled mental circuitry, all of the characters tend to speak with the short sentences and clipped delivery of Abbott and Costello repartee, but their patter rarely proves to be humorous. Flop-sweating Max and bitter Martha do shtick that simply suggests a marriage turned hellish.

Hagler never makes Martin seem robotic or comatose. When he's "dummied up," he's motionless, but still seems relaxed on the stage. Apparently suffering from a kind of amnesia, he fails to recognize Beryl or other characters, and at times when he tries to speak, he calls out, "Line?" to be answered by an off-stage voice. Other times, he launches into monologues about neo-Marxist theory, including a genuinely comical speech about how the real class struggle is between the smart and the stupid.

Except for Martin slumped on a hospital gurney, the characters all stand before a seedy red curtain in postures of presentation to the audience -- only occasionally looking at each other. 16 Routines' interest in stage comedy and lack of conventional narrative suggest the vaudeville elements in Waiting for Godot. In a blistering, hilarious rant against the health care industry, Martha has a line that riffs on Samuel Beckett's line, "I can't go on. I'll go on."

Claire Bronson portrays Beryl as an amusingly game stage "trooper," dancing a few awkward steps of "Tea for Two" or striking her signature pose of awkwardness, with knees together and face at the ceiling. Distressed that the other characters ignore her and Martin doesn't recognize her, she maintains a brave front by keeping a tense smile to the crowd. Perry's increasingly strung-out Martha and Julie Oshins' icy therapist Shirley provide sharp contrasts.

With no linear plot or logical behavior, 16 Routines can be hard slog, requiring considerable concentration to puzzle it out. Even the showbiz elements may be intended more as a metaphor for the desperation of the rat race and the personas we adapt to face it. Mednick doesn't give up much or reward much with Routines, and after about an hour of the 90-minute show, it becomes difficult to resist the temptation to simply tune out.

When the characters come out at the end to "tie up loose ends" and speculate whether the play is "post-modern" or "pre-chaotic," you can admire PushPush's commitment to the playwright without sharing any of their willingness to follow where he leads. 16 Routines' distorted echo of vaudeville comedy only lacks a drum kit to sound rimshots after its punchlines, although laughter is not its priority. Unless the joke's on us.

16 Routines plays through June 16 at PushPush Theater, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. $10-15. Call 404-892-7876.

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