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Smart world premieres establish Atlanta’s theatrical voice

We should totally call dibs on Dad’s Garage Theatre’s Large Animal Games and Actor’s Express’s Fair Use as home-grown plays. Neither takes place in Atlanta and neither playwright currently lives here, but the local theater community can claim bragging rights to the world premieres of both witty comedies.

Large Animal Games takes its bow as part of a full season of new plays developed “in-house” at Dad’s Garage, although the company shares the co-world premiere of Large Animal Games with Impact Theatre of Berkeley, Calif. Writer Steve Yockey, currently playwright-in-residence at Marin Theatre Company, has long been a member of the “artistic family” of Dad’s, Out of Hand Theatre and Actor’s Express (as well as, briefly, a Creative Loafing employee). Fair Use by Chicago’s Sarah Gubbins was a finalist in the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, a national award that’s been cultivating a new generation of theatrical talents for more than half a decade.

The original works of Dad’s Garage and the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda plays number among several Atlanta-based sources of new scripts, including Theater Emory’s Brave New Works and Horizon Theatre’s New South for the New Century festivals. The Dad’s and Kendeda plays tend to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former usually proving to be scruffy, irreverent and focused on the concerns and pop obsessions of young adults, while the Kendeda plays tend to be significantly more polished and intellectually ambitious.

Large Animal Games and Fair Use take place in New York and Chicago, respectively, but it’s easy to imagine them in Atlanta, a gay-friendly city of upwardly mobile transplants akin to the characters of both shows. Large Animal Games follows a group of interconnected New Yorkers. Status-obsessed Alicia (Whitney Millsap) treats shopping like a competition. Valerie (Shannon Byrd) has developed a fascination with guns and plans to shoot an animal on safari. Her roommate Rose (Erin Burnett) recently thrilled to a bullfight while on vacation, and brought back a smoldering Spanish stranger (Louis Gregory) who speaks no English. Large Animal Games envisions shopping, hunting, bullfights and romance as different kinds of blood sports.

Yockey’s plays frequently involve the human fascination with violence, self-destruction and other dark impulses, but Large Animal Games turns out to be his brightest and most open-hearted work, and even the bittersweet moments retain a generosity of spirit. The play conveys a smidgen of Christopher Durang’s farcical comedies when a romantic triangle develops in one subplot and, in another, Alicia discovers that her fiancé (Clint Sowell) has an unexpected kink. Millsap, Byrd and Burnett all bring bountiful comic energy to their scenes, but their performances prove oddly alike, as if they’re all gabby, excitable sorority sisters. It seems like an odd choice from director Melissa Foulger.

Some of the characters feel two-dimensional, and it’s hard to imagine their lives continuing when they’re offstage, with two exceptions. As Rose’s argumentative friend Nicole, Alison Hastings seems more grounded than the other female roles. Joe Sykes, a frequent actor in Yockey’s plays, adds a dollop of honey to his voice as Jimmy, the unflappable owner of a lingerie shop who observes and comments on the action. Jimmy’s sage but fabulous advice puts a positive spin on some of the play’s melancholy twist, but overall the show wears its lightness well.

Gubbins’ Fair Use also involves a romantic triangle. At a Chicago law firm, head litigator Sy (Rachel Garner) feels a mutual attraction with her old friend and co-counsel Madi (Park Krausen), who’s involved with Sy’s associate, Chris (John Benzinger). The play opens with Sy typing a mash note to Madi, establishing that Fair Use ardently savors words and passions.

The lovelorn lawyers all work on a juicy case involving an acclaimed young novelist (Tony Larkin) accused of plagiarizing his latest manuscript. The occasional density of legalese rings true while the play explores thought-provoking ideas of creative authenticity and intellectual property. Sy’s bohemian friend Bec (Laura Krueger) argues that great artists should have license to improve on the ideas of others, citing Shakespeare as Exhibit A. By the end of Act One, when Sy helps Chris woo Madi, the audience realizes that Fair Use has tipped its hand: Hey, it’s totally riffing on Steve Martin’s Roxanne, which is itself a reworking of Cyrano de Bergac. Can it be a coincidence that Krausen even played Roxanne at Georgia Shakespeare? Still, it’s nice to see Krausen in a contemporary script.

Plagiarism provides a hot-button issue in our current culture, but Gubbins carries the concept beyond the academic/literary arena. The script questions whether it’s fair use to borrow someone else’s writing for emotional self-expression as long as the more articulate passages echo your own feelings. Fair Use also addresses a phenomenon frequently noted in contemporary plays: how people can have passionate affairs with someone of the same gender, yet still be considered “straight.”

Directed by Freddie Ashley, Fair Use touches on all these themes without encumbering the nimbleness of the romantic comedy. Across the board, the actors deliver charming performances that exemplify different facets of sexual orientation without resorting to cheap stereotypes. Fair Use may be the smartest, most entertaining new play I’ve seen at Actor’s Express in years, and one can only wonder why the Kendeda prize went instead to Smart Cookie, a likeable but less substantial comedy produced on the Alliance Hertz Stage last spring. At any rate, Fair Use and Large Animal Games each suggest that locally cultivated plays need not affect Southern drawls to speak to their audiences.

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