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Now, let me see if I have this right. Kate, a self-absorbed, often manic, pretty young thing on the prowl for a sugar daddy in and about the art galleries and posh parties of Manhattan, has set some guidelines for her husband search: He must be rich beyond measure, married but unhappy, older but not ancient.

Ideally, Kate, or Kitty, as she prefers, would be married but divorcing. This way, she would appear to be vulnerable, in need of comforting, ready to be squired about, a hint of mystery about her.

So far, there are few promising prospects. She bemoans: "Whatever happened to the wandering eye, the roving hand? Aren't there any bad marriages out there any more?" Thus the premise for Shawn Nacol's play, "Trophy Wife," winner of this year's Eric Bentley New Play Competition.

The play is enjoying its inaugural performances -- it's been in workshop format nationally -- at The New Phoenix Theatre, where in another bow, Ross Hewitt dons a director's hat for an impressive first time.

Lisa Vitrano stars as Kate/Kitty, accompanied by Richard Lambert, Mary Loftus, Mary Moebius and Colbert Alembert.

Into Kitty's life drops Peter, a hopeless romantic; he has some bucks, but he's a bachelor. Peter doesn't meet the specs, but Kitty is interested. He pursues, sends her flowers, something that's "expensive, tropical and dies very quickly." But, the greedy Kitty wants more. Money is growing short and her benefactress, cancer-stricken Aunt Oodge, could be entering her last days. Oh, what to do.

Peter joins forces with Kitty's roommate, modernist painter Dinah, a martini-swilling ditz, and they pretend an affair, a bogus marriage and a quickie divorce. Peter, of course, will then be eligible for the Kitty sweepstakes. It all works out.

Kitty eventually admits to being a fraud. It turns out she doesn't really want yachts and jewels and Paris vacations but kids, a cottage and a real life.

"Trophy Wife" tells all of the above in fast-paced fashion until an Act II dip into lull and ho-hum. Playwright Nacol apparently loves the 60-year old Hollywood genre of gal-pal, chatty and bitchy movies full of Kitty and Dinah types. They don't have conversations, they have repartee. They don't answer, they retort. "Screwball comedies," they were called: highly verbal, crammed with wisecracking cattiness and a good deal of frantic behavior.

For all of the clever lines and sage commentary about a number of social issues, some clunkers remain. The terminal Oodge, describing her illness: "My body is like a tumor soiree with an open bar." It's surprising that, even after a number of staged readings and workshops, lines like that and a rambling and crude Kitty monologue late in the play remain.

A first play is sometimes a work-in-progress. I don't know if this is true with "Trophy Wife." Frankly, I hope it is because the work, talky and occasionally irritating as it is, has promise.

With nice-guy Peter and old Oodge the exceptions, the people met are not likable. It would be nice to care about Kitty, Dinah and young stud Tigger, the toy-boy "maid" who seizes opportunity in the wooing of Oodge.

These are touching but unlikely minutes that breed skepticism not admiration. Director Hewitt's cast is skilled. Lisa Vitrano's performance as Kitty leans to the bravura, but necessarily so; she is exhilarating. Mary Moebius is superb as Dinah, saying hateful things, denting mightily the gin and vermouth. Richard Lambert is steady and polished, Mary Loftus nicely wafts through the story as sad Oodge, and Colbert Alembert is fine in the perhaps superfluous role of Tigger.

"Trophy Wife"

Rating: * * 1/2
Comedy by Shawn Nacol.
Starring Lisa Vitrano, Mary Moebius, Richard Lambert, Col bert Alembert and Mary Loftus. Directed by Ross Hewitt.
Continues through June 15 in New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park. 853-1334.

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