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Asolo's 'Standard' spiel grates even as it seeks toingratiate

The arrival of a new decade ought to signal an end to intellectualglibness, but the self-absorbed '80s are still with us.

Behold Eastern Standard, a play constructed of platitudes and white bread, which ought to offend the sensibilities of thinking people.

Where else, except in a Phil Collins pop tune, does America's crisis of homelessness become pop-rock fodder for the Me Generation? (What next, Lite Beer ads for street people?) Where else can AIDS be exploited as a narrative "angle?"

Richard Greenberg's glib comedy revels in its shallowness, and the

brain-dead Asolo Theater Company production that opened last week hits all the false notes loudly.

Garry Allan Breul directs an attractive but largely uninvolved cast in Greenberg's play about callow dilettantes who regard a homeless person as a social science project. The fault lies mostly with the playwright, who has created an emotional wasteland where a yuppie couple's idea of emotional commitment is an in-dash CD player for their Acura Legend.

The lone moment of spontaneity in Eastern Standard on opening night came at the opening curtain, when the Asolo audience politely applauded Keven Lock's hot-pink Art Deco set. It was the most fun anyone had all evening.

Greenberg's play opens in a midtown Manhattan nouvelle eatery frequented by young lawyers and stockbrokers who work through power lunches of overpriced white wine and grouper tortellini.

In the opening moments, we meet all six characters: Stephen (T. Scott Cunningham), an architect who admits being drawn to relationships that are "slow, difficult and ultimately fruitless";

his friend, Drew (Eric Hissom), a flamboyant homosexual; Phoebe (Robin Poley), a dressed-for-success type who is concerned that her ex-lover might be indicted for insider trading; Phoebe's brother, Peter (Tom McBride), a handsome TV exec who is dying of AIDS; Ellen (Leslie L. Rohland), an actor/waitress who regards being homeless rather like

summer camp: "I wanted to sleep in the streets - for one night," she says; and May (Annie Murray), a foul-mouthed bag lady who hurls bottles of mineral water and 12-letter epithets without accuracy or conviction.

It is a measure of the play's lack of depth that we know as much as we need to know about this sextet after Act I. There is, I regret to say, a second act that is devoted entirely to the comings and goings of the characters in and around Stephen's summer house.

Stephen and Phoebe soon become lovers, but their quietude is interrupted by their guests. Drew throws himself at Peter, whom he regards as a hunk-o'-burnin'-love with chiseled features and pecs to die for. Ellen arrives with May in tow, and the latter, perhaps discreetly charmed by the bourgeoisie, thereafter becomes cook and housekeeper for Stephen's extended family. What follows is a series of conversations, in no particular order, about love, truth, commitment, social responsibility and hard choices.

There is lots of hugging in Act II, perhaps in an effort to smother the dialogue, which spews from the stage like so much grouper tortellini. The actors don't have a lot to say, but most of them say it badly. Breul directs the play as somberly as he would Macbeth, and the text merely suffocates.

I felt compassion for the actors, particularly Cunningham, who gives Stephen a kind of naive decency that allows room for empathy. We can easily believe he is smitten by the self-centered Phoebe, and we are equally certain that she will hurt him.

Poley's performance (and Greenberg's text) leaves us wondering what Stephen sees in Phoebe, and more significantly, whether this young woman is as shallow as she appears.

Eric Hissom's fey posturing as Drew makes us yearn for the humanity of Lanford Wilson's homosexual character in Burn This!

McBride's performance ranges from wooden to embarrassing, with the nadir coming near the end of the play when he has to break down and reveal his secret to Drew. The actor's attempt at conveying genuine emotions, with which he and most of the cast are out of touch for most of the play, is shockingly inept. McBride's stagey weeping drew titters of embarrassment on opening night.

Rohland's big scene, in which she strips to her bikini and delivers a spiel about homelessness, seems to be there primarily to arouse the audience. She gives Ellen a kind of self-conscious vulnerability that almost makes her likable. At one point during Act II, she actually appears to listen to herself talk, then runs offstage with a blush.

Murray's bag lady is a jumble of stereotypical blather and profanities. And although uncomfortably aware that she is her host's "reclamation" project, May demonstrates amazing tolerance and empathy. Murray doesn't give her enough grit, or a reservoir of antipathy that would allow us to believe her actions at play's end.

What does it matter? The preposterous conclusion, in which the characters toast themselves with cheap wine, is a fitting denouement.

Eastern Standard Playwright: Richard Greenberg Cast: T. Scott Cunningham, Robin Poley, Tom McBride, Eric Hissom, Leslie H. Rohland, Annie Murray Director: Garry Allan Breul Set design: Keven Lock Lighting: Martin Petlock Sound: Bert Taylor Costumes: Sharon Sobel Stage management: Stephanie Moss Production supervisor: Victor Meyrich Presented through April 8 by the Asolo Theater Company at the Harold E. and Esther M. Mertz Theater, the Asolo Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Performances at 8:15 nightly, with matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $25. Call 351-8000.

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