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NEW YORK NOTES: Here's to the Ladies... and the Gents - Broadway's wealth of roles is non-gender-specific this season.

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So far this New York season, we've seen numerous outstanding performances by actresses. Add Linda Lavin in Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife; Cherry Jones in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, Veanne Cox in Nicky Silver's The Altruists, and Eileen Heckart in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery.

Lavin plays Marjorie in Allergist's Wife at Manhattan Theatre Club, a West Side intellectual who devours Kafka and Hesse like most people read the morning newspaper. She's going through a depression brought on by the death of her therapist-but the real ache is dissatisfaction with her life. Director Lynne Meadow and the admirable cast get considerable mileage out of sharp parodies of upper-middle-class New York life, but the playwright doesn't have a solid enough structure to get totally beyond sitcom. Busch does go into the territory of pointed observation, and Lavin is dead-on. Even her small asides draw howls of recognition.

Cherry Jones as Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Walter Kerr Theatre is an earth mother, constantly bragging about her sluttish ways. With her loose-hipped walk and devilish grin, Jones is the sly Irish seductress, revelling in her physical power and projecting an aura of wantonness (which later turns out to be a sham). When the fa‡ade is stripped away by the raw need of her alcoholic suitor James Tyrone (played by Gabriel Byrne and based on O'Neill's own wastrel brother), she is the comforting mother figure he craves. Jones is the embodiment of madonna and whore, the twin images of Tyrone's skewed view of womanhood.

As Sydney, a masochistic and self-centered soap opera star, Veanne Cox is hysterically over the edge in The Altruists at the Vineyard Theatre. One minute she is demanding her sponging and neglectful lover get out of her apartment and the next she leaps into bed with him, screaming, "I don't know what I'm saying, I love you." Unfortunately, the play is a cartoonish series of sketches.

Eileen Heckart details the deterioration of an elderly art dealer in The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan's achingly realistic autobiographical play at the Promenade. As the play begins, Heckart is conversing with her grandson (Josh Hamilton). By his shouting and repeating lines like, "Yes, you told me already," we know that she is slipping into senility. The play charts the course of Gladys Green (Heckart) into the final oblivion of old age. The veteran character actress brings a lifetime of experience to bear in this career-capping role. She has the difficult feat of staying in her own world of confused brain-messages and shattered memories while the other cast members relate to each other in a linear fashion. Heckart's deliberate and slow calibration of her physical and mental decline is heartbreaking.

Boys' Town

Well, there are the ladies. On the male side, we've got Gabriel Bryne and Roy Dotrice playing opposite Jones in Moon, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating in the lead roles of True West.

Cherry Jones is heartbreaking in Moon, but the play really belongs to Gabriel Bryne as the devastated drunk Tyrone. Seeking salvation in Josie's womanly bosom, Tyrone has come to the end of a road of debauchery and whoring. Bryne perfectly conveys a man at the end of his tether. Staggering onto the Hogan farm and feigning joviality, we see the slight tremor in his hands as he slyly maneuvers his tenant, Josie's father (a brilliant Roy Dotrice) into pouring him a drink. Watch those hands; they are the most eloquent part of Bryne's body. The tremble he attempts to conceal is ever present and unforced. As Josie hugs him in an embrace which is at first carnal, he holds his hands far away from her back as if to deny the sexual attraction he feels for her, and then they cover her in desperate need.

Dotrice is a charming comic foil to the tragedy played out by Jones and Bryne. A few critics have accused him of playing for laughs, but that's part of his character, putting on the shanty-Irish clown's mug to keep going and make life on his rock-strewn bog bearable. Expect multiple award nominations for Jones, Bryne, and Dotrice when the mad prize-giving season starts next month.

Two other males likely to be lauded are Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. The two young film stars are tearing apart (literally) the stage at Circle In The Square in Sam Shepard's sibling rivalry comedy/drama True West. Lee is a desert rat, mean and ornery. A petty thief with no scruples, he neither owes nor owns anything. Austin is a successful screenwriter with all the trappings of conventional happiness-wife, kids, suburban home. Both siblings want something from the other: Lee yearns for Austin's roots and Austin envies Lee's freedom. The play chronicles the disaster which occurs when the boys try exchanging values. Lee manages to sell a movie idea to Austin's producer. As a result, Austin nose-dives into a depression and starts lifting toasters from his neighbors. The quiet kitchen of their mother's house explodes when Lee attempts writing a script and Austin continually guzzles booze. The exchange is a failure, but they can't go back to where they started. Each is caught holding the other by the throat or they will commit fratricide.

I saw Hoffman as Lee and Reilly as Austin. Though Lee is the flashier role, both performances were equally commanding. Hoffman wasn't quite threatening enough as the scummy desert dweller. I really didn't believe he would murder his brother, which is essential for the play to totally work. John Malkovich, who rode this role to fame in an Off-Broadway revival, made me think he would step off the stage at any moment and throttle me (Robert Duvall inspired the same fear when I saw the original American Buffalo). Yet Hoffman so completely inhabits Lee (as he does all of his roles), the lack of threat doesn't matter as much. He brings the dirt and desperation of the Mojave with him to the antiseptic white kitchen. His words are tight and pinched, his movements guarded.

Reilly is quiet at first, but you sense the rage as his brother begins to usurp his place and then the hollow at the center of his stomach when he realizes the position he's lost wasn't worth anything anyway. He's particularly moving in a monologue about losing his father's teeth. Shepard is big on lost fathers with lost power. In this scene, we see both siblings are searching for Dad's approval-either through macho posturing or monetary gain. BSW

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