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at the Black Dahlia Theatre

A critic and a playwright, recently overheard on a patio outside a local playwriting festival, were bemoaning the lack of "metaphor" in current theatre. They would love this piece, as would anyone interested in what brilliant theatremaking looks and sounds like. Stephen Belber's script, consisting of four related monologues, is lightly sprinkled with metaphor but is emotionally and intellectually laden with the guilt of modern tragedy. We talk a good game about kindness and family, but how many of us consistently live it?

The set (Mark Worthington) includes curb and grass, lit by a street lamp, surrounded by an asphalt lot. The backdrop is a satellite photo of urban America. Where storytelling is this good, that's all we need. In one hour, under director Matt Shakman's tender care, the monologues coalesce into a molten whole, but the performances of each remain crisply distinct and memorable. Sorry to spoil any surprise, but each is delivered by Morlan Higgins, and each is an acting lesson unto itself.

It may take a while to figure out who each of the four characters is. First up is a man who remembers his football coach as a great inspiration and a man worth emulating—keeping in mind the violent nature of sports. Last is the coach, whose secret is his childhood tragedy and his lifetime goal of covering for it. [Spoiler alert] The middle two are the coach's emotionally wrecked daughter who later marries the man, and the daughter's dog, the most eloquent and articulate of Belber's characters, who faced deliberate and then misguidedly naive cruelty at his life's end.

Higgins creates the stunted child with a lightly softened voice, slightly rounded shoulders, and a tugging movement at sleeve cuffs that bespeaks a wish to dull the feeling in the hands. The perspicacious dog first appears, lounging on his back, then enthusiastically chatting—but, again, nothing that would immediately clue us in on his identity. Coach and athlete are distinguished from each other almost imperceptibly and yet without confusion. Of these four, whose recollections of the events make the character a reliable narrator? Indeed, who of us can observe, recall, and recount the absolute objective truth?

Presented by and at the Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sun. 8 p.m. Jun. 6-Jul. 6. (800) 838-3006.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

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