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New York Theater

Still Life

"All Mark did was, he brought the war home. Nobody wanted to look at it." Though much of Emily Mann's 1981 play Still Life traffics in post-Vietnam America -- ambivalence about returning vets, budding feminism, My Lai -- much could be ripped from Friday's headlines. Once again, the boys are returning (not fast enough) and a nation is ill-prepared to accommodate them.

The pains of readjustment are sharply rendered in Still Life, which might be described as an emotional strip-tease in triplicate. In three overlapping monologues (to unseen shrinks?), ex-Marine Mark (Erik Potempa); his estranged wife, Cheryl (Heather E. Cunningham); and his mistress Nadine (Kristen Vaughan) muse on Mark's confused state, shedding layers of obfuscation and self-deception as they go. Mark, backed by slides of his tour of duty, is tormented and unpredictably violent. Cheryl, her second child on the way, is lost and resentful. Nadine, a sophisticated free spirit, worships Mark without losing sight of the rest of her life. Details about their interlocking lives -- a prison stretch, drug dealing, alcoholism in their families -- bubble up spontaneously, never neatly resolved. But then, how could they be?

Still Life lives up to its title: three talking heads, two tables, and virtually no action. Yet the talk is compelling. If Potempa's Mark feels a little on the surface (he has the working-class accent and the angst right, but what's underneath?), Cunningham and Vaughan are marvels, both subtly defying expectations about their characters' roles in Mark's life. Even in repose, and there's a lot of it, each stays in character, forcing us to confront Cheryl's bitterness and Nadine's complicated earth-mother makeup even when they're not front and center. Director Ric Sechrest smartly varies the rhythms of the characters' delivery, making them sound spontaneous as they ponder a bleak, nearly hopeless landscape. "It will happen again," Cheryl bitterly intones near the end -- and boy, she got that right.

Presented by Retro Productions

at 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78th St., NYC.

Feb. 16-March 3. Tue., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.

(212) 352-3101 or

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