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COUPLING UP

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Here's a case of a few small components making a cohesive whole. Four actors in six sketches framed by videos capture the mainly truculent moods of meeting Mr. or Ms. Right. Crisply scripted by Paige Baxter and Terry Hart, this work introduces us to a series of characters who neatly meet up in various situations. Directed simply and effectively by Stan Wells, this late-evening opus pulls us into the vortex of its desperate—and madly humorous—world, as Baxter and Hart are joined onstage by Christopher Hutson and Debra Magit.

The videos star Baxter as Nancy, the dauntless owner of Coupling Up, a video dating service. With the ruthless glee of her character, Baxter conducts on-camera interviews of the service's new members. Wild-eyed and wearing a "big hair" wig and chunky jewelry, Baxter adds age, heft, and gruffness to the role. Onstage, Richard (a sobbing Hart) is about to bury his wife. Over the open casket, Bernice (Magit) admires the quality of the silk lining and informs Richard she has a casserole waiting for him. She is elbowed away by Nancy (Baxter), who promptly sells Richard a membership in Coupling Up by offering him a "same-day special" membership fee. We soon see the bereaved on video, as Hart tries to stop bawling long enough to state his preferences in a date.

Next, a wry Magit and Hutson appear as the dating service's competitive sales force, shaping their scene by briefly softening their characters. Magit reappears as the telemarketer after hours, this time sharing the intimate details of her latest tryst—a man who turns out to be the father of her girlfriend (Baxter, crafting disbelief and disgust). Bernice, too, appears on video, as Magit plays the interviewee perfectly, uncertain of where to look, slightly projecting for the camera. Next, Hart creates a stay-at-home husband, his body language showing defeat, his miming unusually fine for sketch work.

With decisive characterizations, Hart and Hutson flesh out Ted and Bruce, two self-proclaimed straight men who discover mutual fondness, in a perfectly paced, nicely unfolding scene. And in a sizeable visual joke, Baxter and Magit appear as female fans at a baseball game, gesturing as obscenely as ever their male counterparts could, while Ted and Bruce are their Coupling Up dates. Again, Hart and Hutson play sweetly sensitive, meanwhile sublimating their characters' desires for each other. And so all are coupled up, at least in theory, as the scenes are stitched together with satisfying imagination and zest.

"Coupling Up," presented by and at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West L.A. Sat. 10 p.m. May 19-June 23. $7. (310) 470-3560.

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