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Expect charming romances and smashing comedy, complemented by ingenious suspense and a bit of bittersweet storytelling, coming this season to Studio Arena Theatre's 636-seat house.

This variety and range of style is nothing new for Gavin Cameron-Webb, Studio Arena's artistic director since 1991. He has over the years steadfastly refused to get involved in debates about distinctions over high-, middle- and lowbrow theater. The point, he has maintained, is to get the audience involved, and it doesn't matter so much if that involvement comes through laughter, the twists and turns of a plot or some compelling intellectual idea.

Alan Ayckbourn's play "Things We Do for Love" is a good example of a play that, although a full-fledged comedy, holds some theatrical surprises that reach beyond the genre. As directed by Cameron-Webb, it will have its American premiere when Studio Arena officially launches its 1999-2000 season this week. (Preview performances of the play will begin Saturday at 8 p.m., continue Sunday and Tuesday nights at 7, and conclude on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The opening-night performance will be on Thursday at 8 in a run that continues through Oct. 10.)

The prolific Ayckbourn is Britain's hot writer of stage comedies. Laughter is his main way to engage an audience. But as Cameron-Webb points out, he is not averse to a little experimention when it seems in order.

The play is about love and hostility and how complexly these emotions are layered in the human psyche. When Ayckbourn makes these layers shift and warp, as they do in "Things We Do for Love," the results are inevitably hilarious.

"The play pretends to be a slice of life -- literally," says Cameron-Webb. "A London town house is sliced in section so that we see the actors on the top floor from the the knees down, see the whole apartment on the main floor, and from the picture rail up to the ceiling in the basement apartment."

The unusual staging allows a portion of the events to unfold half out of sight, from the knees down or from the neck up. Audience members will be required to use their imagination to fill in the action from glimpses and hints of actors who may be engaged in anything from wild lovemaking to vengeful acts of vandalism or pratfalls.

The Studio Arena's second offering of the season, from Oct. 17 to Nov. 20, will be in a tad different register. It is Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke," the third in the Studio's five-year retrospective of Williams' plays. Last year saw a well-balanced "The Glass Menagerie" and, in the 1997-98 season, a solid "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," both of which he directed. "Summer and Smoke" will be directed by Howard Shalwitz, artistic director and founder of Woolly Mammoth, a Washington, D.C., theater known for its experimental productions.

" 'Summer and Smoke' has a large cast and many scenes that play all over the place in different locations," says Cameron-Webb. "There are 14 actors, eight from Buffalo."

It seems that no Studio season is complete without a reprise production of a Tom Dudzick comedy. Returning this year is "Over the Tavern" (Nov. 28 to Dec. 23), the wildly popular play set in Buffalo of the 1950s by this Buffalo-born playwright.

When Cameron-Webb first saw Martin McDonagh's thriller "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (Jan. 9 to Feb. 6) in New York City, the audience response was overwhelming. This four-character play set in rural Ireland is, he says, rich in suspense and multiple plot surprises. "I suppose it is a melodramatic mystery, but it is very cleverly written."

Cameron-Webb describes John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" (Feb. 13 to March 12) as a play in a more conventionally realistic style. "It is a very moving love story with a nice touch of comedy."

He says that "Far East" by Buffalo-born A.R. Gurney (March 19 to April 16) "turns out to be a very imaginative and elegant demonstration of the clash of two cultures."

Though you might not guess it by its bland title, Cameron-Webb says "Italian American Reconciliation" (April 25 to May 21) is a light romance, written by "Moonstruck" author John Patrick Shanley. It promises some of the same When-the-moon-hits-your-eye-like-a-bigga-pizza-pie kind of sentiment.

Studio Too!, Studio Arena's second theater that was devoted to more adventurous productions and held at the Pfeifer Theatre across the street, won't be returning this season. Cameron-Webb said he hopes it will eventually, but in a smaller venue.

Subscription or individual tickets for Studio Arena's 1999-2000 season can be purchased at the box office, 710 Main St., or by phone by calling 856-5650 or (800) 777-8243.

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