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A play about a playwright who writes a play about a playwright, Nicky Silver's comedy The Agony & the Agony is a refracted, repeated-to-infinity glance through the looking glass. Yet this deviously funny piece is only occasionally deep and not at all challenging to follow. The Magenta Giraffe Theatre production, directed by Lisa Melinn, is an exhausting lap around absurdity that also manages to both reinforce and seriously question the notion that hell is other people.

The play's apartment setting is home to the gay man/straight woman marriage of Richard (Keith Kalinowski) and Lela (Connie Cowper), two theater artists of considerable drive, dubious talent, and poor prospects. Whatever leg up each partner expected from their mismatched union hasn't panned out, but now things are looking up for both of them at once. Richard has broken through a years-long dry spell and started writing again, but Lela needs him to make himself scarce so that she can entertain a big-shot producer and seduce her way into a coveted role. Much of the first act concerns the couple's wheedling and vitriol, steeped in Silver's hyperbolic verbal fireworks, but the early goings struggle to find traction — if the characters are engaged in a game of cruelty, the actors don't seem to agree on the rules. Further obstacles to Lela's casting-couch session are introduced, farce-style; first to interfere is her lover Chet (Dalibor Stolevski), who dumbly inserts his dimly pretty ambition into the scene, only to be followed by his trucker-mannered wretch of a companion (Molly McMahon). Also not to be discounted is the specter of infamous Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Jonathan Davidson), who is not at all happy to have his likeness invoked in Richard's self-referential new play. The first act is a zig-zagging build to a very full house, whose few jangling moments are amply countered by well-packaged, playful give and take.

In contrast to this hullabaloo, the second act opens with a scene frankly startling in its reserved nature and emotional heft. Interspersed with tart bickering, Richard and Nathan have a philosophical discussion about the motivations of a criminal and the baser nature of happiness; amid some very funny flailing, Kalinowski's control of his character's stripped-down honesty is riveting. For his part, Davidson's impeccable portrayal of an imagined historical figure is quietly larger than life and defiantly unknowable. Freed of the measured exposition of the first act, the second proceeds like an off-kilter merry-go-round, cemented by the marvelous addition of the guest of honor (Alan Madlane), whose breezy command of the room shows a man accustomed to having supplicants hang on his every powerful word. The rapid-fire production spins out to an odd catharsis, ladling out ample punchlines — although the cruder the character, the harder the jokes land. Melinn's staging is plenty chaotic but generally not messy, showing her characters feeling isolated in the crowd even as her performers work together to pull off big physical stunts.

Gwen Lindsay's wash-of-details set draws focus nowhere and everywhere at once; combined with Katie Casebolt's array of costumes ranging from outdated to bad taste to elegantly lazy, the show feels adrift in time rather than anchored in any particular present. Lighting by Neil Koivu also gives an inexact but fitting added element, as characters slide into and out of pools of light to deliver biting asides. The choices generally complement this scrappy production, which treats its broad characters like playthings in the mind of their self-flagellating creator.

The Agony & the Agony delivers on its promised anguish, but only for its characters; the audience is pulled along with curiosity, bafflement, and bursts of comic ecstasy. The script's framework is marvelous, taking the hokey literary device "and that is what you juuuust read" and unceremoniously dropping it on its head, but the snarling logic of the premise never once trips up or interferes with the precision train wreck that drives the story. Accordingly, this production knows when to push the emotional undercurrent of the playwright's self-examination and when to let the fur fly; both are handled with skill and an eye for the humor in life's disappointments.


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