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Theater Review

The Country Girl *** 1/2

Play by Clifford Odets

Through Dec. 18 at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park, 853-1334

This is pretty serious stuff -- the familiar struggle of a self-loathing alcoholic who props himself up on a strong, if deluded woman. Clifford Odets himself called his 1951 play, "The Country Girl," a potboiler. (It boiled the pot well: a stage hit, it was later the source of a popular Oscar-winning movie starring Grace Kelly and a sodden-looking Bing Crosby.)

But as the New Phoenix Theatre's engaging and well-wrought production demonstrates, the play is no throw-away. Odets, great talent that he was, couldn't help but write dialogue that reveals characters churning away inside with murky conflicts and slowly shifting self-identities. There's melodrama here, plenty of it. But it is deepened and broadened by some tough, no-nonsense character writing and an ambiguous ending that leaves it slightly up in the air as to who will get whom (if indeed any of the principals in this love triangle do finally pair up at all).

Lisa Vitrano (Georgie Elgin), Phil Knoerzer (Frank Elgin) and Brendan Powers (Bernie Dodd) are the solid triangle. Under the able direction of Scott Behrend, this well-balanced trio adeptly work off one another as the progress of the plot ties them ever more tightly together. The story is standard by now: director Dodd, suddenly without a leading man, remembers some fabulous Elgin performances from his youth and wants to put the shaky Frank in the part. The moneyman behind the production, the recalcitrant Phil Cook (Dan Walker), hates the idea, while gentle playwright Paul Unger (Richard Lambert) has faith in such half-redeemed folk.

Thanks to wife Georgie's subtle persuasions, Frank takes the part. But, given that he is the most insecure, self-deprecating human on the planet, Frank must live on false bravado. (He says things like, "Walk like a mountain goat -- never slips.") Georgie keeps righting him, even as the gullible Bernie buys into Frank's malicious rendition that it is Georgie who is the brittle nutcase, not him -- right up until opening night in Boston when Frank swills down a couple of bottles of cough syrup to get his fix.

Georgie is the emotional hinge point of the drama, and Vitrano gives her a fine sense of feeling caught in a painful, clandestine state. When Georgie isn't fielding Frank's nasty ploys, she's fending off the hostile Bernie. Vitrano finds a way to play this humorless personality, tamped down by her own martyrdom and yet longing to let out her real feelings. At the start, Vitrano plays her as a frail, deluded shell of a woman. Her black hair pulled straight to reveal a fine-boned face and hollow stare, she seems the image of post-World War II America's victimized womanhood.

Out of this frail figure comes a person of increasing strength. Vitrano has her shed her simple country girl persona -- but slowly, hesitantly, almost fumblingly, like a woman discovering herself for the first time. It is a strong and affecting rendition.

Vitrano's purposeful upward emotional rise is much needed with Knoerzer as Frank. He plays this whining, self-hater as a borderline psychotic. He's not merely neurotically unsure ("Yeh, take their part"), he's a twitching bundle of frayed nerves and fractured, jerky movements. As it happens Knoerzer's original, if pathetic, creation finds the ideal counterpoint in Vitrano's well-tempered anguish.

This delightful equilibrium is extended and perfected by Powers. He begins as a hard-headed guy who finds the supposedly manipulative Georgie "slightly grotesque" and moves fluidly onward to reveal a vulnerable man who -- however unlikely it is dramatically -- abruptly finds himself in love with the woman. Powers handles this tricky transition with great poise and conviction.

The main three get marvelous support from an ingratiating Lambert and an entertaining Bob Grabowski as the feisty stage manager. Walker has his moments, but at times comes close to the Big Bad Backer caricature. Susan Drozd gives one too many bounces and skips to her portrayal of the young ingenue Nancy.

Yes, the play is freighted with many period expressions -- "That's swell," "Excuse me for blowing my wig" and, my favorite, "Don't kid the ugly man" -- and it isn't apt to give you many laughs with lines like Georgie's to Frank when she tells him, "It isn't necessary to be loved by every Tom, Dick and Harry Truman, even if he is president."

But Odets' dialogue, of whatever sort, always leads somewhere -- to another wrinkle in Frank's trembling psyche, to another long shadow on Georgie's dark mentality. The New Phoenix does this good play great credit by following a coherent, uncluttered line from beginning to end.