LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES

It's not the places themselves that are so strange in this dismaying duet of one-acts; after all, run-down apartments and riverbanks in the park are really not such out-of-the-ordinary locales for romance. It's the situations revealing themselves in these places that deserve a disbelieving sigh or bemused shake of the head.

In Tennessee Williams' Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen…, an alcoholic husband (Michael Rangel) and his demoralized wife (Karyn Anonia) fantasize about life outside their dismal urban environment. Like any good codependent couple, they think that new surroundngs will magically solve their problems. After approximately 20 minutes of painfully static daydreaming about better days ahead, they come to realize that their circumstances will not change, because they haven't the will to change. Familiarity not only breeds contempt but also nurtures complacency. It's much easier to stay entangled in a damaging situation than it is to risk the terror of liberating the heart and soul from a cycle of self-destruction.

Thankfully, Ben Bettenbender's The Siren Song of Stephen Jay Gould offers some mild comic relief from the Act One downer. Here, a discouraged man (Aaron Rudelson), making a rather humorously misguided attempt at suicide, jumps off a short bridge and lands on a startled young woman (Jane Whitney) instead of in the river as intended. Their ensuing conversation reveals that she is at the water's edge to say goodbye to love by tossing the box for her engagement ring into the river. Naturally the pair discovers an unexpected compatibility and a reason to go on for at least another day or two.

Bettenbender's script shows promise. The situation is offbeat and amusing, and the writing is occasionally witty. Director Lelia Goldoni fares better with this piece than she does with the Williams one, which lacks any honest sentiment between Rangel and Anonia and relies, instead, on having them indicate emotions. Admittedly, on the night reviewed, the actors faced distressing complications beyond their control (a toilet being installed caused a delay in opening, and problems with the light board prompted Goldoni to stop the show and start over). Still, Goldoni's direction in this piece remains ineffectual. As a whole, Love in Strange Places remains uneven, unbalanced, and ultimately unfulfilling.

"Love in Strange Places," presented by Theatre Phoenix in association with the Raven Playhouse at the Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m. Feb. 13-Mar. 20. $12. (323) 878-5554.