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Queasy queens and claptrap death

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A leader in alternative theater, Shipping Dock chose an offbeat gay Christmas comedy for the holidays. But The Crumple Zone by Buddy Thomas is slight and uneven and needs all the theatrical help it can get. On opening night it didn't get much. Under the pressure of a major case of amateur actors' opening-night panic, the rattled cast had a rough time.

Playing Terry, the central character in the three gay young men's Staten Island apartment, Erik Libey had a tough assignment anyway: A hyper, interfering friend who complains constantly that he hasn't had a love life or any recent sex life, Terry is annoying unless played with quirky charm. Libey, a well-known local gay writer and drag-performer, though clearly not an actor, was reportedly appealing in rehearsals. But with no vocal modulation he overprojected each line in what sounded like an angry goose honking, accompanied by florid over-the-top gestures.

Sammy Urzetta, a talented, experienced actor, seemed to play to Libey with diminishing but always-audible volume, as though trying to send a message to calm down. But Billy DeMetsenaere, also usually capable, initially joined Libey in overacting. A short, heavy man, DeMetsenaere may have been uncomfortable about being miscast as Alex, the love/lust object whom the two best-looking men in the cast fight over.

Recovering, he later delivered the play's funniest lines with winning comic timing. Alex works as a department store Santa, and his morose description of the cause for his dismissal, his incredibly disastrous encounter with horrible children and worse parents, is a hoot.

A waiter in a restaurant, Terry is also fired at Christmas time for skipping work with an outrageously wrong-headed excuse. And apparently Alex's lover, Matt, may lose his job touring in an awful musical. Mark D'Annunzio is pleasing as Matt, who is distressed to find that Alex is now sleeping with handsome Buck (Urzetta), but Matt is onstage only briefly toward the end.

In an amusingly unlikely bit of casting as Roger, the drunken outsider who intrudes into the apartment twice to try to have sex with the mostly unwilling Terry, Ken Klamm provides bright relief with a gamely enthusiastic performance.

So there is material here for sporadically funny, peculiar Christmas entertainment. The plot includes an unfortunate Christmas gift and a bad-looking Christmas tree, which Terry knocks over and falls under. Libey did effectively perform a supposedly impromptu "seductive" dance aimed at Urzetta's Buck, who is put off but then moved to laughter.

And the troubles of these four gay men and their married visitor, however contrived and frantic, are potentially laugh-getting. Director Maureen Mines seems to be in smart control when her actors are. And P. Gibson Ralph's set and the uncredited costumes and props are appropriately tacky.

The only thing wrong with Ira Levin's Deathtrap at JCC's CenterStage is that it seems nervous about the plot's being partly gay. A slight emphasis is needed to establish a motivation that the script doesn't make forcefully. Otherwise, secure in an excellent cast smartly directed by Kerry Young, the production is solidly accomplished.

This long-successful, much-revived thriller is neatly constructed enough to be a wind-up toy anyway. Like Sleuth, the similar audience favorite that it refers to several times, Deathtrap is not only exciting and amusing, rejoicing in its own cleverness and endless plot-twists, but also self-mocking. Its major motivation for most of its characters is the lust for a sure-fire theatrical moneymaker: "2 acts, 5 characters, A Perfect Thriller." So they are all trying to create or act out what this play actually is, smirk, giggle!

The master playwright whose career is going dry, Sidney Bruhl, is appropriately affected in Ken Bordner's authoritative performance, though he hasn't got all his lines down yet. His nervous, supportive wife is warmly played by Vicki Casarett. Carl Krickmire is very attractive and adroit as Bruhl's young hotshot student who has written a terrific play worth killing for. And Darrell Lance suavely plays Bruhl's lawyer.

As directed by Ms Young and quaintly costumed by Karen Hall, Pamela Good makes the exotic neighbor Helga Ten Dorp, a noted psychic, less the imposing creature she has been in earlier versions and more like Noel Coward's Madame Arcati, a slightly goofy, lovably comic character. This larger-than-life Helga is more fun.

And all this carrying-on takes place in a huge, ideally rich and creepy set, its walls covered with collectible weapons like cross-bows, its furniture eventually including a stunning antique desk for two. Handsomely lit by Ted Mancini, the scenic design by Ethan Sinnott may be the most impressive artistic work in this fine production. 

The Crumple Zone by Buddy Thomas, directed by Maureen Mines, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre at Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through December 19. Special New Years Eve gala performance at 9 pm costs $25. Tickets for general admission $12 to $22. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org

Deathtrap,by Ira Levin, directed by Kerry Young, plays at JCCenterStage of the Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Avenue, December 9, 11, 16, 18 at 8 p.m., December 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets $20 to $22. 461-2000, extension 235, www.jccrochester.org

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