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BUSY 'NIGHT'

NIGHT OF THE IGUANA ** 1/2

WHAT: Classic Tennessee Williams drama directed by Robert Waterhouse

WHEN: Through Oct. 7

WHERE: Buffalo Ensemble Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park

TICKETS: $15 to $18, with discounts available

INFO: 855-2225

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams traveled to Mexico whenever writing plays and his own demons seemed too much to bear.

Years later, he turned to Mexico again, this time as the setting for "The Night of the Iguana." Here the familiar one-sided contest between coarseness and kindness that he had traced earlier in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and in "The Glass Menagerie" was enhanced by the isolation and steaminess of a tropical rainforest.

In the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon and Hannah Jelkes, Williams brings together two haunted and wounded characters who come painfully close to making the sort of real human contact each so desperately needs. But Shannon is far too cynical and despairing for Hannah, who, like Blanche Dubois before her, can say, "Nothing human disgusts me, unless it's cruel."

In the Buffalo Entertainment Theatre's production, the depth of these two characters' needs is revealed only occasionally. As played by Kristen Tripp Kelley and Richard Lambert, Hannah and the Rev. Shannon seem drawn to each other only once - in a long, lyrical scene near the end of the play where director Robert Waterhouse provides exactly the sort of deft touch that makes the encounter deeply, tragically moving. Kelley and Lambert reveal in their gestures, pauses and modulations of emphasis the bruises beneath the surface and the pity inherent in their situations.

Elsewhere, however, this hyperactive production loses Williams' subtleties in constant movement and in a voice that ranges from the loud to the shrill. Even Hannah's 97-year-old grandfather (Loren Keller) recites his poetry as if speaking in an amphitheater.

The BET's production is too often cartoonish and outsized. Maxine (Sandra Gilliam), who runs the hotel where Shannon and the busload of "old wet hens" he guides through Mexico are stranded, seems genuinely jealous of Hannah. But we don't feel her passion for Shannon or for Pedro (Nic Catania) and Pancho (Dan Horrigan), the two houseboys who meet her every need. Lambert is a strong performer, though in this production anger tends to overwhelm subtler emotions. Kelley is affecting throughout, and whatever force this production has is due largely to her sensitive portrayal. Waterhouse wisely makes the most of her pre-Raphaelite delicacy.

Betsy Bittar does good work as the carping Miss Fellowes, Emily A. Woyshner is an appropriately nubile Charlotte, and Dan Walker and John F. Kennedy provide colorful support as Hank and Jake.

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