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Contemporary comedies, regional premieres on Atlanta Stages in January

Putting away the nightcaps and elf suits until next year's holidays, Atlanta theaters will ring in 2001 with an assortment of off-beat comedies and provocative dramas, including many regional premieres.

Five Woman Wearing the Same Dress, Theatre in the Square, Jan. 17-Feb. 25. Former Mariettan Alan Ball, last year's Best Original Screenplay Oscar-winner for American Beauty, penned this Southern comedy about a group of bridesmaids (hence the fashion uniformity). Elizabeth Spicer directs a quintet of terrific local actresses: Shannon Eubanks, Rebekah Baty, Elizabeth D. Wells, Monica Williamson and Jen Apgar.

The America Play, Actor's Express, Jan. 14-24. Artistic director Wier Harman fulfills a long-standing wish to direct The America Play, a complex and poetic approach to race and the American dream by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee's Girl 6). Making its Southeastern premiere, The America Play features Gary Yates and Carol Mitchell-Leon.

Hearts, Hertz Stage, Jan. 27-March 18. Kenny Leon directs his last play as the Alliance Theatre's artistic director, offering the regional premiere of Willy Holtzmann's Hearts. Spanning 55 years, the play explores the lives of a group of Jewish World War II veterans and stars Allan Miller, Jessie Andary and Cedric Pendleton.

The Bible, The Complete Word of God, Horizon Theatre, Jan. 19-March 4. The madcap creators of The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr, Abridged and The Complete History of America, Abridged turn their attention to the Good Book. Jeff Adler directs the three-man cast, which includes Shkspr alumnus Rob Cleveland, America vet Christopher Ekholm and Matt Johnson.

Sweat, 7 Stages, Jan. 31- Feb. 25. South African poet and political activist Walter Chakela offers the U.S. premiere of a work about Apartheid and the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, featuring traditional music, dance and storytelling. (Emory University observes the reconciliation theme with a Jan. 26 staged reading of The Man Died by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.)

The Hobbit, Alliance Children's Theatre, Jan. 13-Feb. 20. With The Lord of the Rings feature film to be released 11 months from now, the Alliance gets a jump on J.R.R. Tolkien with a stage version of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Rosemary Newcott directs Chris Moses in the title role, as well as Alan Kilpatrick as Gandalf and Justin Welborn as Gollum.

Cantorial, Jewish Theatre of the South, Jan. 18-Feb. 11. A young New York couple (Stacy Melich and Joe Knezevich) renovate a former synagogue and make it a residence -- only to discover that it's haunted by the ghost of a cantor (sung by Cantor Isaac Goodfriend). The comedy by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, Deathtrap) sounds like a Jewish spin on Blithe Spirit and also stars Frank Roberts and Andrew Davis.

The Tempest, The New American Shakespeare Tavern, Jan. 6-Feb. 20. Dikran Tulaine was originally tapped to direct Shakespeare's tale of enchanted castaways, but he's been cast in a Martin Lawrence film. Instead, the show will be co-directed by Tim Haberger and Jeffrey Watkins, the latter of whom plays the magician Prospero. The production features Daniel Pettrow, Trent Merchant, Melanie Colvert and Maurice Ralston.

Some Mysterious Goings-On. Finally, three of Atlanta's theaters respond to the winter weather by curling up with mystery plays, with J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls at Neighborhood Playhouse (Jan. 12-Feb. 18) and two Agatha Christie works, the long-running The Mousetrap at Aurora Theatre (Jan. 26-Feb. 24) and Go Back for Murder at Stage Door Players (Feb. 2-25).

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