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IN REAL LIFE

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Fresh out of drama school, Charlayne Woodard arrived in New York with five classical monologues in her pocket and a place to stay. It was a time when black actors, she says, were in great demand on Broadway—as long as they could "sing, dance, and make people happy." Woodard, however, was determined to steer clear of musical theatre and realize her dream of becoming a serious stage actor. Though the former proved impossible, she has attained the latter with tremendous grace. Now an accomplished actor and playwright, Woodard recalls her journey from drama student to Tony nominee to frazzled mess in this one-woman show, her third authored work.

About an hour into the play, we learn Woodard's agent convinced her to audition for Ain't Misbehavin'. And, asked to prepare a '40s tune, she brought "Auld Lang Syne," a cappella. She begins a little tentatively, then unleashes a sublime version of the song. The audience holds its breath, not simply for Woodard's voice but also because of the irony built into this perfectly timed revelation. This talent, we realize, will be the deferment of Woodard's dream. The script is full of such well-crafted moments. But rather than languish in them, this artist often breaks her own spells with sudden ripping wit. Though she can't tap, Woodard earns a spot in the original cast of Ain't Misbehavin' (alongside a begrudging and hilariously portrayed Nell Carter), a job that becomes both triumph and trap. Eight shows a week singing at the top of her range leave her emotionally and physically depleted. Her return to peace provides the remainder of the play.

With a perfect blend of humor (the side-splitting kind) and poignancy, Woodard had an audience hanging on her every word on the night reviewed. The work is flawless, with character transitions so liquid that it takes time to even register that the actor is juggling several voices. She has the kind of physical presence large enough to command the Taper and refined enough to transform among Rastafarian, naïve girl, and cigarette-smoking agent with seeming ease.

Daniel Sullivan's direction is precise but unobtrusive, and he brings together the production elements similarly. John Lee Beatty (set), James Berton Harris (costume), Kathy A. Perkins (lighting), Chris Walker (sound), and Daryl Waters (original music) create a simple, cohesive context for the performance. And, though the play reminds us that success is hard won, the production itself feels quite effortless.

"In Real Life," presented by Center Theatre Group, in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre, at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. In a repertory schedule with "Another American: Asking and Telling" (opens Aug. 12). July 29-Sept. 16. $30-44. (213) 628-2772.

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