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Theater Review:

cobalt ensemble theatre’s "ALARMS AND EXCURSIONS" at Chicago Dramatists

BY LUCIA MAURO

The sub-title of "Alarms and Excursions," Michael Frayn’s malfunctioning gizmo-inspired British farce, may claim to be "More Plays Than One." But this lightweight series of comedy sketches is more accurately a one-joke wonder. Once audiences realize – after all of 30 seconds – Frayn’s point that modern high-tech devices (from smoke alarms to answering machines) geared toward making our lives easier often lead to hair-pulling complications, all there’s left to do is smirk at the various ways he repeats and alters this premise.

Audiences expecting the savage lunacy of Frayn’s "Noises Off" or the graceful erudition of his Tony Award-winning "Copenhagen" will be slightly miffed at this play’s breezy superficiality. Nevertheless, it does have its moments of sardonically crafted hilarity. And not all the issues are trivial.

In fact, "Alarms and Excursions" is more about the detrimental miscommunication – and/or lack of human contact – between couples in our supposed era of mass communication than about malfunctioning gadgetry. These characters’ problems result from their damaged emotional wiring --not from their unreliable pagers and Palm Pilots.

Regardless, the play is still fluffy entertainment. But it’s also a perfect choice for cobalt ensemble theatre’s summer offering.

And director Ted Hoerl crafts such a polished, riotous production that audiences need not get all worked up over "Alarms and Excursion’s" one-dimensional comedic sensibility. Sit back and enjoy the earnest dexterity of this nimble cast – demonstrated quite ingeniously in "Toasters." This sketch relies almost entirely on Megan Parr’s, Susan Blazer’s, Jody Wilson’s and Barry Cohen’s pretzel-like physicality as they try to juggle plates, silverware, glasses and notes during a pompous business conference/luncheon.

The most real and forthright piece on the bill is "Doubles," a study of two couples’ petty jealousies and insecurities as they bicker and eavesdrop in a nameless cookie-cutter hotel. Miles is a perpetual joke cracker while his sensible wife Melanie prefers peace and quiet. In the next room, the non-communicative Laurence is oblivious to his wife Lynn’s impassioned desires. And, throughout this humorous mediation on the emotion-deadening routine many married couples fall into, Frayn ponders the idea of all the evaporated encounters in look-alike hotels very much like a tree falling in the forest. Will anyone hear these guests’ cries for fulfillment?

Another provocative scenario is "Glassnost" in which the impeccably wry Jody Wilson (as a British political figure) winds up the victim of an underpaid TelePrompTer’s revenge during an important speech. "Look Away Now" centers on airline passengers’ severe defiance over listening to safety instructions. It plays with the zany irony of a wholesome-looking Susan Blazer as a flight attendant managing to enforce this chronic lack of attention even as she performs an in-flight strip tease together with the oxygen masks and seat cushions that double as floating devices.

"Heart to Heart" is more predictable as two strangers (a kinetic Scott Kennedy and multifaceted Jamie Virostko) mis-hear each other’s questions over the high blare of conversation at a party. This results in a romantic miscommunication, which turns violent when the woman’s husband (Barry Cohen) returns with his wife’s drink.

Frayn opens Act One with the overly slapstick "Alarms" in which the total breakdown of high-tech toys occurs during a small dinner party; and Act Two opens with "Leavings," set at the conclusion of the same dinner party but focusing on the constipated hesitation of the guests trying to get out the door. These sketches grow as tedious for the audience as they do for the characters.

Luckily, the play ends with "Immobiles," a screamingly nightmarish romp through answering-machine oblivion as a frustrated couple tries to coordinate the proper meeting place when their foreign friend arrives at the airport. Broken bones and broken hearts are the result of this techno faux pas. But the funny bone gets its fair share of tickling in the process.

cobalt ensemble theatre’s production of "Alarms and Excursions" runs through September 1 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 312-458-9182 or log onto www.cobaltensemble.org.
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