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THEATER REVIEW: “Who Am I This Time? (& other conundrums of love)”

“The stories you’re going to hear tonight are true. Now, whether any of them ever happened or not, I’ll leave entirely up to you.” -- Tom Newton

Small-town community theater brings together some of Kurt Vonnegut’s more colorful characters in the local premiere of Aaron Posner’s “Who Am I This Time? (& other conundrums of love),” playing through Feb. 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Posner has conflated three Vonnegut short stories into a charming and amusing evening of theater directed by Andrew Barnicle.

Narrated by Tom Newton (James Leaming) in the style of the stage manager in “Our Town,” the first conundrum – “Long Walk To Forever” – is about two kids who grew up next door to each other. Newt (Ben Cole) and Catharine (Christina Flynn) were best friends but, you know, somehow that next step never happened.

But Newt has never forgotten her, and now he’s come home from the military to try to prevent her upcoming marriage. In fact, he’s even gone AWOL to do it. He suggests a walk in the woods, you know, like they used to do way back when.

Now there’s a situation rife with possibility, in more ways than one. And Vonnegut milks it for all its ironic – and amusing – potential. Cole and Flynn may remind you of the kids in, oh, let’s see, maybe “The Fantasticks,” though Newt and Catharine don’t have parents stage-managing a romance.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but next up is “Who Am I This Time?” in which we hear that the North Crawford Mask & Wig Club is casting for Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It seems that longtime director Doris Sawyer (Rosina Reynolds) can’t do it this time “because my mother is so sick.” So she appoints Tom to the job. “I only have so much bossy in me,” Doris says. “And your Katie is one of the best actresses we’ve got. Oh, and if you don’t get Harry to play the Brando part you’re screwed.”

Hardware clerk Harry Nash (Jason Maddy) is your stereotypically laconic, terminally shy guy in the back room who suddenly blossoms when you put him onstage. There is no question he will be cast, so when Tom talks to him about the audition, Harry’s only question is “Who will I be this time?”

As expected, Harry shows that he can turn on a dime from scared-of-his-shadow Harry to the raging beast that is Stanley Kowalski. But he doesn’t quite know what to do with new-girl-in-town leading lady Helene’s offstage interest in him. (Fear not, Flynn’s Helene will clue him in.)

The third piece, “Go Back To Your Precious Wife And Son,” gives Reynolds a chance to play bitch-on-wheels Gloria Hilton, a glamorous movie star in a failing marriage with writer George Murra (Gregory North). Posner gives it comedic spin by surrounding the situation in a plumbing project: Tom becomes an inadvertent witness to their (latest?) knock-down drag-out fight while installing a new bathroom enclosure for Gloria. And there’s the poignant twist of Murray’s strained relationship with teenage son John (Cole).

Leaming is a welcome new face here, his Tom an inviting down-home presence that connects all the story lines.

Cynthia Marty, another newcomer to NCRT, is utterly convincing as Tom’s wife Kate and a wonder as Blanche DuBois as well.

Gregory North (Marty’s real-life husband) impresses as Verne Miller, owner of the hardware story where Harry works and as George Murra. This is North’s first time here; I saw (and was impressed by) him a few months ago in Pasadena Playhouse’s “Twelve Angry Men.”

Flynn and Cole play Catharine and Newt (the young Kate and Tom) with the oh-so-familiar hesitancy of youth about to take that step into adulthood. And Flynn’s Helene is a hoot as she matches Harry’s transformation once she steps on the stage opposite him and both get caught up in the Williams characters. Cole also does a fine job as stage manager Joey and John Murra.

Reynolds – who never disappoints – has a wonderful time as director Doris, and seemingly an even better one as bitch goddess Gloria.

There may be nothing new, strange or startling in this play, but familiar characters and situations portrayed by a fine cast with excellent direction guarantee an enjoyable evening in the theater.

The details

“Who Am I This Time? (& other conundrums of love)” plays through Feb. 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.