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Strong performances buoy uneven three acts of 'Way Back When'

Theater is great for “what ifs.” I love when a playwright pontificates on the unknowable, imagines the impossible.

For those wondering about God, the New Phoenix Theatre has got your curiosity covered. “Way Back When” is an evening of one-act plays about faith that pairs the work of two local Jewish playwrights with a spirited ensemble. The results are enjoyable and insightful, but rarely intriguing. Only one of the program’s three acts exercises the rhetorical, intellectual itch.

That’s the fantastic “In The Beginning,” a much-loved piece by the late Rebecca Ritchie, whose prolific career brought many productions and printings of her progressive work. It suggests a modern-day interaction between a widowed Eve and a bitter Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife. They discuss their mutual connection to Adam, God’s etch of man, who would go onto birth centuries of misogyny and gender politics. That Lilith is able to turn a submissive Eve onto feminism in 20 minutes is a delight to watch. (That Adam isn’t there to defend himself is proper vindication, too.)

Kathleen Rooney gives an at-first demure performance as Eve that matures naturally to the emboldened. Rooney is quiet and reserved, so you might want to lean in; she appeared nervous on opening night, a little hesitant. But listen closer, and you’ll be rewarded. This is a nuanced, tender performance, one that’s sure to deepen with time.

John Summers, left, and David Lundy star in "Way Back When" at New Phoenix Theatre.

Ritchie’s dense and economical text pushes this story forward with great agility and tenacity—a real ride. Pamela Rose Mangus gives a devilishly fun performance as a scorned ex seeking to enact revenge by way of victim-empowerment. John Summers, familiar to audiences from local television and radio, is perfect in a small role.

This is a sophisticated, smart, unexpected little scene. The ticket is worth this act alone. One wonders why the rest of the program couldn’t rise to the occasion.

The two other acts come from Grant Golden, another prolific writer whose work often can be seen on stage and read in local media. “Creation” and “Way Back When” bookend Ritchie’s piece, and are linked by common characters.

In both, David Lundy and Mangus appear as a domesticated version of God and Mrs. God, respectively. They’re like a modern couple of mere mortals: they bicker, they tease, they talk current events. Imagine God as a corny, flawed guy in white tube socks; imagine his wife, a Grecian housewife unfazed by her hubby’s disgruntled banter, far more interested in a martini break and good beach read. Every day, much the same: God invents dinosaurs, God’s wife chooses names them. It’s a funny idea.

Both feed off of a clever idea—what if God was one of us?—but neither includes enough plot or action to extend this beyond a premise. Imagine reading the same comic strip cell for 40 minutes.

“Creation” plays like the pilot of a sitcom spinoff. It takes too long to endear us to characters who are ultimately less interesting than their funnier, wittier neighbors. “Way Back When” is the tighter, deeper second episode, finally able to shed exposition in favor of daily life.

Director Betsy Bittar enables this with sedentary blocking and cumbersome sight lines.

There’s something indeed funny in here, and Lundy is a fearless showman alongside the estimable Mangus. But it all goes on for too long. Might these two pieces be combined and condensed? “Way Back When” at least offers a smart scenario, in which God confronts the human Abraham, and talks it out.

There’s room to tinker here. In the spirit of the show’s premise, anything worthwhile is worth a little editing.

“Way Back When: An Evening of One Acts”

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Through Feb. 24 at New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $30 to $20. Call 853-1334.

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