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"Jack and Jill' puts starkly modern twist on romance

The medium is the message in Jack and Jill, the new play by the pseudononymous Jane Martin now playing in a Stageworks production at the Falk Theatre. As a two-character play about the trials and tribulations of modern-day male-female relationships _ divorce, mainly _ the ideas it has to offer on the subject are relatively commonplace, but the way the playwright gets them across is quite innovative.

The play's method is best summed up in a statement in a handout that comes with the program. "There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination," it reads. "Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic."

That's a good description of the impression made by the play, which has a nervous, disconnected quality created through tightly paced, overlapping snatches of dialogue between a man and woman in their 30s, taking place in a series of scenes spread out over several years. It starts at a library where Jack (Scott Isert), an "imagist" _ some kind of artist, apparently _ makes an awkward pass at Jill (Dawn Truax), a hospital administrator, who is reading poetry. They end up back at her apartment and eventually wind up married, split up and, perhaps, reconciled.

Jack is a self-described nice guy, a cuddly romantic who aims to please. Jill, on the other hand, is a pragmatist, the sort of woman who knows that if she shares a joint with a guy, they're going to end up in bed together, so she wants to get the ground rules straight before toking up.

"Too much structure," Jack protests when she produces a package of condoms.

Jack and Jill is full of oddball aphoristic remarks on the state of matrimony. "Marriage is like the cockpit of a commercial airliner," Jack says. "You know, all those switches, and they all _ all 200 _ have to be in the right positions, only in aviation they know what those are, and in marriage you never do, so the odds are astronomical you won't stay in the air."

Jane Martin is the nom de plume of a Kentuckian whose other plays include Talking With, Vital Signs and Keely and Du.

Jack and Jill is not a likable play _ both characters are pains _ and that is its greatest strength, as an antidote to pleasant TV-style romances in which all the rough edges are smoothed over and everything is wrapped up in a tidy package. In the Stageworks production, Jill is the more interesting of the two, benefiting from a terrific performance by Truax, who never misses a beat in piecing together her character painstaking line by line, gesture by gesture, pause by pause. It's like a cubist construction of a woman with too many choices in her life.

Isert is a serviceable performer but not exactly leading man material up to the task of coping with the formidable likes of Truax's Jill. It's partly in the script, but his Jack has a buffoonish, hapless air that is reinforced by a truly bad wardrobe.

Under director Jack Parrish, there are some stylish touches to the staging that turn minimalistic production values into a virtue. A pair of stagehand/dressers move props around and interact silently and wittily with the actors. The bright blues and yellows of Richard Sharkey's bare set provide an effective cartoonish backdrop for the barbed exchanges between Jack and Jill.

Theater review

Jack and Jill by Jane Martin continues through March 29 in a Stageworks production at the Falk Theatre. Tickets are $12 and $14. Call 253-6243.