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Low level for Shipping Dock

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Maybe it's me. Clare McIntyre's Low Level Panic has won respectful attention from English and Polish theater mavens as a potent drama. It also makes some lively and amusing comments on women's sensibilities as they resist male-dominated society's efforts to define them in pornographic terms. But I find the play incoherent, annoying, and sometimes tedious. It's being performed by Shipping Dock Theatre, which is celebrated locally for presenting work on a high level.

            All the action takes place in the bathroom of a London flat shared by three women, who treat us to intimate exposure of their private lives and inner thoughts. The play's one harrowing moment takes place outside. A sudden, unmotivated rape is presented with such taste and restraint that it packs a wallop more traumatic than an explicit, melodramatic scene would inflict. But, unfortunately, that subtly treated, ugly scene is the high point of director Barbara Biddy's production.

            When we see the panicked effect that the title suggests, it is broadly played on anything but a low level. And its point is undercut by what seems to be merely a re-creation of behavior from before the rape. In the first scene, we hear Mary ranting furiously about a pornographic magazine she found in their garbage bin outside. One wonders why she brought it in and reads from it if it offends her, rather than just leaving it in the garbage where it belongs.

            Weeks after the rape, she resists dressing up and dolling up for a party, because doing so might make her seem "slutty." Her rant has the identical rhythm, sound, and impact as in her initial scene. Only by reading the program do we discover that Scene 1, the "pornography" scene, and Scenes 3 and 5, before the party, take place within a short time, and that they all happen weeks after the rape. There is no clear onstage indication that the rape scene happened weeks before what we saw in the beginning of the play.

            Even understanding that the rape was a flashback, and that all Mary's irrational expressions of genuine anguish are a result of such abuse, I think playwright McIntyre handles the dialogue awkwardly. Mary's loud rants about such tortures as the sounds of neighbors fighting and making love are most unwisely punctuated by her repetitive shouts of "Why do I have to listen to this?" That's what I was thinking.

            Perhaps to combat the relatively static plot, the cast screams most of the dialogue. Cheryl Farney (Celia) creates intriguing mystery with poorly enunciated, often unintelligible delivery. Jessica Mack (Mary) yells her lines in unvaried agitation. And Sara Greenhouse (Jo) shrieks hers with such abrasive consistency that a factory whistle might have seemed a restful alternative.

            Other than vocally, these attractive women are not without charm, and they wander in and out of Serge Love's huge bathroom set in effortlessly natural re-creation of normal, "at home" behavior. One even bathes nude, and another bends to apply make-up at the mirror before putting on her panties. All this revelation would seem overly familiar to a sorority girl, but fraternity boys, past and present, might sit up and take notice.

Low Level Panic,by Clare McIntyre, directed by Barbara K. Biddy, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre, 151 St. Paul Street, through Sunday, March 2. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tix: $16-$18. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org.

Theater Note

Through Sunday, March 9, Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo is presenting a first-rate production of an offbeat Canadian Classic. On the surface, a simple, rural farm life story of friendship and caring, Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy is a laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving, and oddly profound experience in the power of story-telling. Highly recommended. For more info, call 800-77STAGE, or visit www.studioarena.org.

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