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Alliance Theatre doubles up with latest scripts

The Alliance Hertz Stage's Top Dog/Underdog, running Nov. 12-Dec. 19, features a concept that all but demands a repeat viewing. Suzan Lori-Parks' Pulitzer-winning play, directed by Alliance associate artistic director Kent Gash, features actors Kes Khemnu and Joe Wilson Jr. as African-American brothers named Booth and Lincoln. Booth works as a three-card monte hustler, while Lincoln performs re-enactments of the Great Emancipator's assassination as a tourist attraction.

The twist in Gash's production is that Khemnu and Wilson switch roles on alternate nights and play the other brother. It's an irresistible idea recently made famous when ace movie actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switched off as rival brothers in True West's Broadway revival in 2000. The approach leaves you intensely curious as to how different actors approach the same material -- and which one is better.

During a time of soft theater attendance when every ticket sale counts, there's an innate attraction to plays that bring you back for more. Plays with comparable gimmicks include the musical of Charles Dickens' unresolved The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which requires the audience to vote on whodunit. English playwright Alan Ayckbourn specializes in overlapping plays, most ostentatiously with his recent pair, House and Garden, which play simultaneously on a two-sided set. Two different paying audiences sit on either side, and when actors exit the House set, they enter the action of Garden and vice versa.

Shows that inspire multiple viewings just might be worth their logistical headaches.

And the winner is ...

The returns of the Nov. 2 election won't just determine the next president of the United States. They'll also reveal which play script the Alliance Theatre will stage the following night.

Previews begin Oct. 27 on the Alliance Theatre's main stage for A.R. Gurney's satirical comedy The Fourth Wall, directed by artistic director Susan V. Booth. Gurney's play depicts a suburban housewife who, out of frustration with both her marriage and contemporary politics, rearranges her living room so the furniture faces "the fourth wall," a theater term for the invisible wall that separates the stage from the audience.

When The Fourth Wall debuted in 1992, Gurney cited the first Bush administration, and then revised the script for recent revivals to mention the Dubya White House and the current acrimonious political climate. For the Alliance, Gurney provided yet another version, with adjustments in the text in the event that Kerry wins the presidency. The cast is rehearsing both versions, and will stage the "Bush" script through the Oct. 27-31 previews, and will switch to the "Kerry" version -- if needed -- for the Nov. 3 opening night.

What's a Savoyard?

The Atlanta Lyric Theatre may be the city's strangest and least-known success story. The troupe has survived for 25 years by operating under a quirky, puzzling name; by staging sprawling productions that run for merely a handful of performances; and by being devoted -- at least in its early days -- to the work of a single 19th-century creative team.

The Lyric began in 1980 under the name Southeastern Savoyards, then changed to Savoyards Light Opera, then Savoyards Musical Theatre before hitting on the current handle. In case you were wondering, a "Savoyard" refers to either a performer or an admirer of the operettas of Sirs William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, which frequently played London's Savoy Theatre.

Artistic director J. Lynn Thompson says that Atlanta lacks a big enough fan base to support an all-Gilbert and Sullivan company, so the theater expanded its mission in 1990 to include other classic musical forms. But for 25 Years of Gilbert and Sullivan playing Nov. 5-7 at the Ferst Center for the Performing Arts, the company goes back to its roots to present selections from 12 of the 14 operettas. The show features five principle vocalists, 75 musicians from the Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra and 30 members of Atlanta Festival Singers, as well as actors playing fictionalized versions of Gilbert and Sullivan as the evening's "hosts."

Thompson acknowledges that with such big productions and so few performances, the company can't rely on ticket sales, but says that thanks to corporate and private donors and foundations, the Lyric is currently debt-free. He also believes that the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, thanks to the movie Topsy-Turvy and references on shows like "The West Wing," is ripe for rediscovery, akin to the swing revival of the early 1990s.

Gilbert's intricate "patter" songs may be the biggest selling point. With rhymes and rhythms not that different from hip-hop, all the music needs to become hot again is, say, an Andre 3000 to run a backbeat under, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General/I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral/I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical/from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical."

The gangstas of today could be the Savoyards of tomorrow.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

Hot ticket

For one last burst of political satire on election eve, Dad's Garage Theatre presents the hilarious 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, performed by its originators, Chicago's Neo-Futurists, who updated the present-day ending since Dad's 2002 staging. The fundraiser plays one night only, Mon., Nov. 1, 8 p.m. Carter Center, 453 Freedom Parkway. $43. 404-523-3141.

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