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The ghosts of past lies

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When a drenched young woman, Brigid, steps out of the rain and into The Second Coming pub, her "chance" encounter with owner Niall O'Neill starts the pair on a long strange trip through a dark and stormy night. The torrent that is Key West, playing on Geva's Nextstage, hits the audience with a barrage of philosophical questions: Is God in every one of us? How is the thin line between ecstasy and insanity drawn? Is there life after death? What is the value of truth, and will we be haunted by our lies?

Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's bumbling philosophers in Waiting for Godot, Niall and Brigid battle towards understanding. But playwright Dan O'Brien's appreciation for Ireland extends beyond its authors. O'Brien devoted a year of his life to the study of Irish lore. "I've always been fascinated by religion and myth," O'Brien says.

This fascination shows in Key West: the myth of a goddess, her mortal lover, and how he succumbs to the relentless motion of time becomes an important metaphor for the relationship between Niall and Brigid. Key West is itself a contemporary, even an urban, myth that leaves its audience with more questions than answers.

This is no morality tale. Its audience won't leave the theater having swallowed some trite message about the triumphant achievement of the American Dream or having been served platitudes about faith and hope. In fact, audience members may leave confused, outraged, saddened, or inspired. "If anything, this play asks big questions," O'Brien says. "It's the type of play I hope people are moved by and entertained by, but I think it's also the type of play that, I hope, people want to argue about."

And the story O'Brien weaves is entertaining. His plot drags the audience through the entire spectrum of human emotion before releasing them back into reality, feeling baffled and bewildered.

Emotion can be difficult to convey in the theater, as actors are left without the benefits of the close-ups that allow movie audiences to capture and comprehend every nuance of a film actor's performance. Theater students are taught to emote, to exaggerate facial and physical expressions and project to the back of the house, which, depending on the dimensions of the venue, can be dozens of feet away.

Lori Prince (Brigid) and Richard Elmore (Niall) are given the opportunity to forgo these techniques, thanks to the intimate performance space provided by The Nextstage. Unfortunately, they were unable to break with convention and played their parts as if to a much larger theater. Their exaggerations distracted the audience from the dialogue and redirected attention to their own performances.

In a play with only two characters, it is essential that the actors share a certain spark, a chemistry that puts the audience at ease while simultaneously exciting them. On opening night, the comfort level between these two actors had not yet fully evolved. As a result, Prince and Elmore ran over each other's lines, stumbled over their own, and managed to upstage themselves and each other, so parts of O'Brien's witty dialogue were lost on the audience.

Though their performances took off at lightening speed, the actors caught up with themselves eventually and settled into their characters. In what is the climax of the plot, a shocking twist worthy of a good M. Night Shyamalan reveal, the actors deliver performances that stun the audience into silence --- proof that they're capable of portraying the truth of emotional pain.

The opportunity for a regional theater to team with a playwright in the world premiere of his play is rare. Cooperation between director Skip Greer and O'Brien helped to shape both the feel of the performances and the look of the production.

"It is a strange feeling to see a room... that has been in your imagination for... years, to actually be able to walk through it. And, it's a set, but it's a real flesh and blood thing," says O'Brien.

Rob Koharchik's design is astounding. Built on a revolving table, the house that contains the mysteries of The Second Coming pub is a whitewashed and worn shanty that has succumbed to the environment and unabashedly shows its age. Surrounded by shaggy palm trees and unkempt foliage, the pub reflects the appearance of its owner.

The pub itself is dressed from beams to planks with nautical memorabilia, knickknacks, and dust: a traditional British pub that has been lost to the world, forgotten. Niall's studio is Koharchik's crowning achievement. Cluttered with poetic disarray, the room embodies the schizophrenic confusion of Niall's mind.

O'Brien says that Greer's focus for direction was to "clearly be ambiguous in telling the story." Greer has succeeded. Ambiguity permeates the play, as the audience has to reconsider its perceptions at the shock of the play's revelation. As O'Brien says: "Faith doesn't mean as much to me without doubt, without mystery, or without uncertainty."

Key West is on The Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Sundays until November 21. Show times: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. $12.50-$25. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.

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