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Irish, Jewish, or Texan, it’s all comedy

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One reward from Geva's artistic director Mark Cuddy's sabbatical year in Ireland is a new season richly flavored with Irish plays. There will be exciting new ones, but the first, now playing, is 100 years old. And, in every sense of the phrase, it's a tough choice.

No masterpiece, John Bull's Other Island is talky and didactic even for Shaw. But it is funny, satirizing not only the mindless arrogance of the colonizing English, but adding the stupidly romantic self-delusion of the embattled Irish.

This is the only play Shaw set in his native Ireland and pretty much his only direct assault on Irish character. Unfortunately, it ends with a bitter, ringing indictment of both sides and a virtual admission that none of its talk will change anything.

So if you take it seriously, John Bull's Other Island has significant contemporary relevance but is neither dramatically satisfying nor as much fun as it was originally thought to be. And if you don't, it becomes a jokey setup of stage Englishmen and stage Irishmen instead of a sharp Shavian send-up of both stereotypes. I'm not sure that legendary director Edward Payson Call has resolved that dilemma.

Geva's very entertaining production is finely detailed in looks, sound, and style. It is clear that Call's decisions are carefully calibrated and skillfully carried out. But, though he makes the comedy play pleasantly, he's stuck with the actionless, sheer polemic of the last scene. At the end, the "mad" defrocked priest, Peter Keegan, eloquently indicts the immorality of the whole capitalist system; while Larry Doyle, the one cynical Irish character, decries Keegan's idealism; and the foolish Englishman, Tom Broadbent, exults in the crimes of his "efficiency." Call has Gregg Almquist (Keegan), David Wilson Barnes (Doyle), and Jeff Steitzer (Broadbent) play the hell out of that scene, and play it straight.

Before that, a lot of Shaw's text has been cut out in order to leave room for a whole lot of the Dady Brothers. John Dady and Joe Dady, as "musicians of Ballygarry," interpolate comic narration and folksy songs that lighten things up considerably and lend unexpected charm to the proceedings. But much of their material reflects exactly the sort of popular Irish folk tradition that Shaw has Larry Doyle disown contemptuously. I expect audiences to love this music-hall intrusion. I suspect that George Bernard Shaw would have been infuriated by it.

An endemic problem of John Bull's Other Island is that its typical Shavian satire on the stupidity of Englishmen's belief in the superiority of their traits and practices is unusually serious and mean-spirited. Englishmen love Shaw's puncturing the Briton's pomposity in Caesar and Cleopatra by having him proudly claim that his people paint themselves blue so that even stripped naked they preserve their respectability. But here the amusingly bumptious Broadbent is starkly labeled a predator with his land development schemes. And the lovable Irish rascals who would rather fight than drink and vice versa --- whatever that means --- look too much like nitwits or backbiting schemers, all of them losers.

You can walk away from this bombastic but brilliantly articulated debate on "home rule" with stinging recognition of its echoes in contemporary colonial "regime changes." But it is hard to stay pleased when all its silliness ends in an ugly admission of hopeless exploitation.

Still, the audience laughs through most of the play. It's beautifully produced and very ably acted. The Dady Brothers are a justly treasured act. And though the Shaw Festival produced a superb version of this rarely performed play six years ago, you aren't likely to see another anywhere soon.

John Bull's Other Island,by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Edward Payson Call, at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through November 14. $13.50 to $48.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.

I promise that you won't figure out where Doug Budin and Randall Rapstine are going next in their zany show at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. Their title, Common Knowledge,expresses what the author-performers say brings them together. But most delighted audiences will agree that it's very uncommon knowledge. In a series of sketches and monologues their material ranges from peculiar takes on familiar experiences to unique creations of their imaginations. (For "unique," read "hilarious though psychotic.")

What sensible response other than laughter would Rapstine get as a dead-serious Texas car mechanic reminiscing glumly on the people who wouldn't believe a thing his beagle said when the dog read Tarot cards? The same character, James Earl, also gripes about how his goldfish makes its bowl levitate. Budin's elfin eight-year-old playwright complains that his mother won't believe that he's going on national TV to read one of his plays. But I believe him. He's written thousands, each almost a minute long, and I liked the ones he performed for us.

The two act out their stories, usually with one soloing in the spotlight while the other, seated at a table, produces funny sound effects. But their deliciously choreographed interaction as two flight attendants dealing with turbulence is a tour-de-force duet. That couple make Tracey Ullman's gay attendant look super-macho; though one has a wife, they truly fly.

Budin and Rapstine aren't so much gender-benders as gender-obliterators. Bald Randall Rapstein can simultaneously remind me of Randy Quaid and Hermione Gingold, and at the same time Jewish Doug Budin can evoke both Peanuts' Charlie Brown and the lamented Totie Fields. And don't even think about PC tact: they used to bill themselves "BG & J (a bald guy and a Jew)."

Their bizarre skits seem to be free-association, moving as they do from Queen Elizabeth I to a pretentious drama teacher, even an aging stripper now on public access TV. But, though I don't want to give away the surprises, one is that these widely diverse elements do wind up connected in a most satisfying way.

Certainly, the show has surprising variety. That turbulent flight is prankishly said to be on South Carolina Air, which one ditzy steward calls SCARE; and the two droll, singled-out airline passengers include a boozily sharp-tongued woman. But then, that woman talks heart-breakingly about the dead son she didn't show support and love for. And we learn enough about a gay cosmetologist to laugh at him and to love him.

Common Knowledge lets us appreciate the antics of two very gifted performers sharing their very special ideas, unlike any others.

Common Knowledge, written by and starring Doug Budin and Randall Rapstine, plays at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre 2, 172 West Main Street, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through the end of November. $21. 325-4370. www.downstairscabaret.com.

Theater note: For more light fare, in Buffalo, Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main Street, is offering an old-fashioned thriller for its 300th (!) production. A young Equity cast of four gets in and out of sexy plot twists involving at least one murder, and maybe more, in Douglas Post's playful Murder In Green Meadows. Actor Ian Lithgow's bio doesn't say he's John Lithgow's son, but look at him and you'll know. Through November 14. www.studioarena.org, 716-856-3415, 1-800-77-STAGE.

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