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Jeffrey Ewing's "The Middle of Nowhere," a new play that had its premier performance Thursday night in the Alleyway Theatre, hangs teasingly between comedy and some pretty serious stuff about the American family and its assorted malfunctions.

How does one play it? Torque up the looney-bin comedy? Drive hard on this collection of misaligned characters as potent emblems of psychological collapse of relationships among father, brothers and sisters? Or find some middle road?

That director Roger Paolini took the last option is understandable. His cast, though good in many respects, was not a scintillating comic team. Dean Goff as the depressed alcoholic son, Eddie Castle, for instance, aimed for a bitter humor that came crawling out of his character's deep-seated cynicism. Though he had his moments, he didn't find it.

Paul O'Hern played a character who named his kids Fort Worth, Sheba ("we were always afraid she'd run off") and Prince Edward Island. This has got to be an absurd figure. And indeed the father of this unfriendly tribe has a number of great, ridiculous lines. But O'Hern, who seems more the voice of shaky reason than a very weird father and professor of literature, lets them fade away in the flatness of his delivery.

It should have been a hilarious moment, for example, when he told his wandering son, Fort Worth (Paul Maisano) that he might have "slipped into allegory" when he left the impression that the boy's mother was dead when actually she had only run off with a lover. It was, instead, only amusing.

Ewing provides ample opportunity for whacky stage-doings with a string of near-disasters that happen outside the "Castle castle" (as the family calls their embattled homestead). The funniest of these is the offstage ruckus that happens when a buck, confused in the storm-darkened landscape of the Northwest, crashes into the kitchen and charges the drunken Eddie, who heroically fights him off by flagging him, bullfighter-style, with a dish towel.

Paolini seems hesitant to go for the inherent hilarity here. He must be worried that he might derail some big metaphor Ewing had in mind involving lost characters and a buck rampaging in the dark. Anyway, he missed a good moment.

The dramatic side seemed to have a better chance. Maisano handled some long monologues with finesse (although he might take it slower at times, and get his pacing down); and Mary Moebius, after a slow start, interestingly made the crazed Sheba's arbitrary pronouncements sound like oracular wisdom one step this side of madness. If you ignore some repeated mannerisms, Lisa Vitrano, as Eddie's estranged wife, was an important hinge between the comedy and the more serious sides of the warped mentalities drifting around her.

Other than a badly fluctuating British accent, Kristen Humbert, playing the father's young wife, was fine. Stephanie Bax-Fontanella, on the other hand, couldn't quite get a handle on her part, making her country-western singer an unconvincing mix of nostalgic longing and plain silliness. Her few patches of song were nice, however.

But again, as with the comedy, Paolini is hesitant. There is a lot of dark territory in the writing (although Ewing might dump all those sweeping hackneyed pronouncements about the meaning of life in Act II), but it never comes to the surface in this tepid interpretation.

Taking on new, unproduced plays is a brave act, and Alleyway should be applauded for it. But sometimes the theater simply lacks the resources to take worthy material like Ewing's play in a firm direction.



Rating: ** 1/2

Comedy by Jeffrey Ewing, directed by Roger Paolini for the Alleyway Theatre, featuring Paul Maisano and Dean Goff, above.

Performances continue Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 25.

Alleyway Theatre, one Curtain Up Alley.

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