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A Den of Identity Thieves 

Plus, Murder most fun

There's something deliciously intimate about watching a comedy when it's staged in the confines of a condo. Pity is, only 30 or so customers can fit discreetly into Suite 408 at the Morrison 721 condos to enjoy Collaborative Arts' irresistibly wicked staging of The Sublet Experiment.

Forget for a moment that Lee Thomas and Kristen Jones, portraying Eric and Melanie in Ethan Youngerman's au courant script, are husband and wife in real life. When they emerge the morning after their first night of love-making, they make their entrances from a real bedroom -- into a real kitchen. In fact, if you came early enough before director Joe Copley's curtain speech, you may have scarfed some bruschetta from atop the ledge separating the kitchen from the living room. I washed mine down with a Yuengling from the fridge. Such complimentary hors d'oeuvres are dispensed on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

And of course, when Patrick Howsare enters from the hallway as the character who reveals himself as the owner of this pad, there's a frisson of recognition when he tells us that he's a recent cast-off from a TV reality show. Hell, we're virtually in the middle of a reality show ourselves!

Collaborative Arts does this sort of thing rather well. Last year, they leased a condo in Dilworth, where their production of Bad Dates, a one-woman conquest with Laurie Riffe, was the coolest event of the season. Sublet isn't a formulaic sequel: Multiple actors strut upon the carpet, and the fourth wall remains in place.

Aside from wreaking vengeance on a reality show, other contemporary touches woven into the plot include YouTube notoriety, online hook-ups and identity theft. Under the guise of subletting Eric's apartment -- though the sex was better than she'd anticipated -- Melanie is scheming with her real boyfriend, Harry, to steal her lessor's ID. Pay close attention and you'll discover that this isn't the only instance of identity theft -- or experimentation -- in the story.

Everybody who walks in the room turns out to be a thief or a scammer. In a couple of instances, characters may be running multiple scams at the same time as they drop or shift allegiances. Lowest on the moral/evolutionary ladder is Harry, rendered with a Cro-Magnon dullness by Jim Yost. Nicely judged, despite Harry's jarring proclivity for citing arcane crime and military factoids.

Our TV castaway is decisively more admirable, having had the foresight to design the house where the reality show is taped -- along with the safe. Howsare is sufficiently volatile to convince us that he'd brave all those cameras to pull off a heist. But during his loud explosions, he might wish to remember that he's in a living room and not a theater.

Howsare's loudness and Yost's loutishness do make Thomas and Jones appear all the sweeter as a couple despite their mutual deceit. Jones may not have a criminal bone in her ultraslim body, vulnerable and susceptible down to her thinly sheathed marrow. So Melanie's reluctance to rip off her host looks natural long before her dopey past is exposed. Bumbling seduction is equally conducive to Thomas' DNA, so amid numerous twists and revelations, we always sense that Ern and Mel are perfectly matched.

If you don't wish to sample Sublet in South End, it transplants next week to Highland Mills lofts in NoDa and completes its four-week run Uptown at Chapelwatch apartments. So there truly are a few experimental aspects to this Experiment -- and they all work.

Maybe the center city revival of the Rat Pack is upstaging the ongoing comedy rotisserie at Pineville Dinner Theater, but laughs come just as reliably with servings of Murder at the Howard Johnson's as the previous farcical entrees on Park Road. Stage production is at least on a par with chef Cliff Ottinger's ministrations at the buffet -- tastier than any HoJo I know.

You are forgiven if you don't remember Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick's three-act romp from its previous appearance hereabouts. That was way back in the early 80s, before the dawning of the Loaf Era. Jerry Colbert, who plays Dr. Mitchell Lovell, probably wishes he had remembered that production better himself. Would have saved him the trouble of re-learning the dentist's lines a quarter of a century later.

Murder at the Howard Johnson's was actually the last show at the original Pineville Dinner Theater when it folded, so Colbert is providing a historic bridge between the two companies. His hairline may not be exactly where it was back then, but the smiling gleam of the rogue's vanity is intact.

As the action begins in Room 514, suave Mitch and his paramour Arlene are getting ready to murder her husband, Paul Miller, a terminally dull used-car salesman. Apparently, at some long-forgotten point in American history, a man could refuse to grant his wife a divorce and make it stick. So much the worse for ol' Paul.

Out of Mitch's bag comes an outsized Novocaine-filled hyperdermic, and the broad physical comedy begins. With elegant balance, each of our three principals becomes an intended murder victim during the beginning of each act, stalked by the other two scamps. Do any of these murder conspiracies actually succeed? No more likely than Chef Ottinger ruining -- or running out of -- his killer smoked gouda gratinée.

Colbert probably has his funniest shtick in Act 1 when he demonstrates what happens when you get a needle of Novocaine in your butt. As Harry, Frank Williams is probably most hilarious in Act 2, when he and his estranged Arlene plot against Mitch -- bedeviled by a botched take-out order, a flimsy gun and a dab of pigeon poop. Good to see Williams chasing around again after so many years.

Autumn Gentile returns for her second Pineville Dinner course as Arlene after appearing as the frisky mother-in-law in Having a Wonderful Time, the grand-opening production, back in July. When you're flanked by a dentist and a used-car salesman, prime laughingstocks for generations of comedians, you don't quite draw your share of the punchlines. But Gentile's vivaciousness often fuels the fast-paced antics, and she nails Arlene's capriciousness dead-center.

Altogether, the package is getting thoughtful new touches. Playbills are dispensed at the front door along with cocktail menus, and your name is printed on a card at your table. They're out to pamper you, amuse you, and send you home with a couple of belly laughs. It's still a good recipe.

ArtsPulse

Onstage at McGlohon Theater, the main attractions in The Rat Pack Is Back are the swinging triumvirate of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. -- with Joey Bishop stepping in as ringmaster or deadpanning comic relief. Behind the scenes, it's a whole different story. Joey was the spark.

Just ask Sandy Hackett, the writer/producer of Rat Pack who portrays Bishop here in Charlotte -- between shuttle stops in Detroit.

"HBO was doing a movie about the Rat Pack," Hackett explains, "and Joey called me and thought I'd be perfect to play him. But it wasn't his decision, so I didn't end up with the role. But it set me on a course to create my own product."

That product premiered in Las Vegas six years ago, and its offshoots have been thriving ever since, as many as five versions running simultaneously just last year. To look at Hackett, son of the late-great mush-mouthed Buddy, you wouldn't think there was any reason to cast him as Bishop.

But listen and you find unmistakable earmarks of Bishop's flat, clipped style. The same is true of Hackett's Rat Pack co-stars. After Les Lankhorst removes the trademark chapeau, the resemblance to Ol' Blue Eyes is strictly in the replication of Sinatra's post-croon hipster vocalizing. Nicholas Brooks is even more unerring in his copy of Sammy's timbre and manner, and Bobby Mayo Jr. -- notwithstanding his silly Eddie Cantor prancing -- reproduces Dino's ultra-relaxed sound to near-perfection.

Although he diligently researched the archives chronicling the original Vegas engagement of 1960, Hackett has discreetly allowed a few anachronisms on the Rat Pack playlist. Dean Martin didn't touch "Everybody Loves Somebody" until 1964, Sammy Davis wouldn't even hear "Mr. Bojangles" until 1968 at the earliest, and Frankie's "My Way" was born in 1968, a dozen years before he recorded "New York, New York." The truly major surgery, however, was done on the comedy -- particularly when it was leveled at Davis.

"Some of the stuff had a racial overtone to it that was acceptable then but by today's standards is not," Hackett admits. "They picked on Sammy mercilessly for his size, his color, his being Jewish, his one eye. Some of the stuff was funny, and some of the stuff, you go, 'O-o-o, a little too much.' So I've toned it down."

PC members of the audience can thus be assured that the rattiest bits of the Rat Pack have been duly rehabilitated. Like all the great stars of today.

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