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Decay at its best // 'Serenading Louie' cast succeeds only too well

'All plays are about decay," wrote playwright David Mamet. This salient quote is reproduced in the director's notes for Serenading Louie, which depicts the decay of two contemporary marriages in excruciating close-up.

Lanford Wilson's sobering 1970 play, rewritten in 1984, proves to be a shrewd choice for American Stage. It is the season's most provocative drama.

Serenading Louie is devastating, even though the interaction of characters during the first two acts doesn't quite justify the spasm of violence at the climax. Director Judy Braha and her attractive cast make us acutely aware of what we're watching: the sad evolution of Western culture, with its blind, headlong plunge toward career opportunism and moral corruption.

The play is set in suburban Chicago, but it might well be any suburban wilderness where four people - old friends from Northwestern - stop at the crossroads in their lives.

These four are, in the words of The Whiffenpoof Song (whence the title), "poor little lambs who have lost our way." They recall the past with fondness, but wisely choose not to live there; the future is uncertain. The present, however, is an emotional wasteland, where the silences are palpable and what remains unsaid has the awful weight of a pagan sacrifice.

Ever the idealist, Carl (Paul Mullins) is a successful builder who is slavishly devoted to his wife, Mary (Diana Sheehan). He is convinced that his success is little more than glorified corruption - "it's all just a daisy chain" - and he would like a return to the days when people cared, were involved and committed.

In the context of Wilson's play, Carl is a hopeless anachronism.

Pathetically, he can't even make an emotional connection to being cuckolded. He is fully aware that Mary is sleeping with his accountant, but he indulges her; he doesn't want her to be hurt.

Mary is a handsome, stylish woman, utterly directionless and drifting like a wind-tossed dinghy at high tide. During a particularly revealing scene, she wonders whether she ought to emulate her mother who, lacking any emotional rudder, contents herself with shopping, her obnoxious pet dogs and obsessively dusting her expensive furniture.

Of her husband, Mary longingly recalls being smitten by him when Carl was a Big Ten quarterback, lean and exciting.

"I don't actually think that I loved him then," she says, almost in afterthought, "but I love him then now."

Carl's friend Alex (Peter Bubriski) is an up-and-coming lawyer with a political future. In court, in public, he is dynamic and charming; at home with his wife, Gaby (Monica Bishop), he is distant.

He arrives home each evening and silently opens the mail, while she moves about the room chattering aimlessly, seldom completing a sentence. It is a painful thing to see his expression of benign indifference turn to disgust when Gaby tries to get amorous.

To Alex, who is having an affair with a 17-year-old, the issue of love is immaterial. It is, he says, "only a neurosis that we've all agreed to have together."

Meanwhile, Gaby is quietly bouncing off the walls, wondering whether she even exists in her husband's imagination. Wilson wrote some of the funniest and most damning lines for Gaby, and Bishop delivers them flawlessly.

"You spend every waking hour asleep," Gaby tells Alex in their opening scene. "I know your eyelids like the back of my hand."

The action of Serenading Louie takes place on Jeff Dean's living room set, which is extraordinarily detailed. The gray fabric sofa and chair, the watercolors, sculpted heads and animal figures suggest an anonymous tastefulness.

Richard Sharkey's eerie lighting scheme bathes the set in a kind of dreamy gloom that nicely counterpoints what has been dubbed the play's "ultra-naturalism." Kathy Foley's costumes - mostly muted grays, browns and greens - complete the emotional picture.

Mullins is perfect as the onetime star athlete reduced to confusion and self-disgust over his career and frustration over his wife's infidelity. Bubriski looks and talks like a future politician. His emotional detachment and good looks give him the air of a Kennedy cousin.

The two men together carry the burden of the play's longest and most disturbing scene, in which a beer-swilling Alex spouts reams of sexist drivel - about politics, men and women, his wife's lovemaking - while Carl evinces disdain and unsuccessfully tries to conceal his scary, mounting rage.

Some of the man-talk is directed toward each other, and some toward the audience, a device that subtly underscores the men's inability to communicate with their wives.

More than any scene in Serenading Louie, this two-character colloquy reveals the chilly vacuum at the center of the characters' lives. They talk about everything and connect to nothing. Something has to break and it does, shockingly.

Sheehan hits the correct note of candid self-centeredness that distinguishes Mary. Confronted by Carl about her affair, she is gentle but direct: "My responsibility to you hasn't altered in the least," she says.

Bishop handles the play's most treacherous role with passion and dignity, avoiding histrionics. In her eyes we see the grief, anger and betrayal of a woman who is terrified of the dark at the top of the stairs.

Serenading Louie is the sort of production that we see too seldom around Tampa Bay. Be prepared: Wilson's drama will haunt anyone who has contemplated the emotional limbo of modern life.

It is a place where love, the fragile neurosis, must be watched and nurtured lest it dissipate or become a slow, unquiet death.

THEATER REVIEW Serenading Louie Playwright: Lanford Wilson Director: Judy Braha Cast: Paul Mullins, Monica Bishop, Diana Sheehan, Peter Bubriski Set design: Jeff Dean Lighting: Richard Sharkey Costumes: Kathy Foley Properties: Laura M. Weston Sound: Vincent V. Costazo and Judy Braha Stage manager: Wendy Chambers Presented through March 4 by American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with weekend matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets $16-$18. Call 822-8814.