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Plagiarism 101 

Plus, Pineville's Mountain high

Back in the days when electric typewriters and microfiche were on the cutting edge of technology, student plagiarism in high school or college was still in a primitive stage of evolution. Students might cultivate the art of gazing over a classmate's shoulder during exams, obtain hand-me-down term papers from grads and upperclassmen, con key passages from CliffsNotes booklets, or pilfer their perspicacity from yellowing periodical stacks.

Policing was also simpler for teachers hung up on the quaint concept that grades, diplomas and degrees should mean something. With texting and Googling, adolescent cheating and plagiarism have risen to heights of virtuosity their parents could hardly dream of in their student days -- until they reached grad school.

The wellsprings of plagiarism might seem to flow in the opposite direction of the premises that set Paul Grellong's Manuscript in motion. After all, we sense that plagiarism skills are somehow cultivated in inverse proportion to the virtuoso's inherent creativity and analytical acumen, don't we? Plagiarism isn't the playground of erudition and genius.

So Grellong makes sure that his trio of protagonists comfortably inhabits the spheres of prep schools, elite Ivy League universities, the New York Times Magazine, literary agents and top-tier publishers before they've even completed their bachelor's degrees. During the Bush presidency, as science is disparaged and academic excellence is debased to unprecedented lows, we may long to believe that sociopathic super-prodigies are mutating in prep schools. Arrogant wealth, highly-evolved genetics, protein-rich curricula, old-style pedagogy and an incredibly competitive dog-eat-dog struggle among classmates for academic and career success might indeed produce the young, witty immoralists that Grellong puts onstage for our consideration.

Elizabeth, the lynchpin of the plot, has already parlayed her thievery into a budding literary career by stealing prep classmate David's manuscript, drastically overhauling it, and palming it off at the Times as her own. Publication in the Sunday magazine has sent lit agents and publishers knocking at her door. When we first see her, she's a lionized Yale undergrad, stressing over an implacable deadline for the second novel in her book deal.

Meanwhile, David has been licking his wounds at Harvard, trying to finish his first novel. Poor lad, he has no book deal. No publisher. No agent. He does have a friend with literary connections, Chris. That connection would be Elizabeth, his amorous girlfriend. After a long separation, embittered on David's part, the three are meeting together for the first time. And an unforeseen opportunity brings the tangled intrigue to a boil.

To his credit, Queen City Theatre Company artistic director Glenn Griffin doesn't rely on undergrads in casting Grellong's suspenseful drama. Heidy Ludden brings a serpentine poise to Elizabeth's greedy, driven opportunism without obliterating the preppie meanness and snarkiness that Grellong calls for. John Wray's cue pickup lagged on opening night in the expository segment of the script, but he warmed up nicely as David, sounding like the brainiest of the bunch -- with a light New Yawk coloration that was perfect.

Kristian Wedolowski applied thickets of his native Uruguayan accent to Chris, which occasionally made his dialogue difficult to decipher. At those times, however, Wedolowski was still delivering a credible foreign-language rendition of the seducer. In fact, I found that my occasional difficulty understanding KW compensated for my ability to see the sharp plot twist lurking ahead.

Unlike Sleuth -- which Grellong's script resembles with its conspiracies, reversals and plot twists -- I felt that Manuscript was at least one ravel and a twist short of delivering full Hitchcockian satisfaction. Your mileage may vary on the suspense at Duke Power Theater, but Queen City has once again put together a very stylish production.

Just where has the quaint, goofball, sentimental ceremony known as Smoke on the Mountain been all my life? Not in Charlotte, though a Samuel French rep has claimed that it's the second-most-produced musical around (behind Grease). Belatedly, the 1988 Connie Ray confection has found a conducive home at Pineville Dinner Theater on Sunday afternoons.

Yes, the team that has brought you My Husband's Wild Desires and a smorgasbord of other sex farces since September is whisking away its Thursday-through-Saturday raunch with righteousness onstage while rusticating the Sunday vittles at the Park Road buffet. There's a strong family feel to the thin skein of plot that holds the humble hymnfest together -- likely because resident director Craig Spradley has built his cast on a couple of acting families.

First, there are the Colberts, appearing together in a scripted musical for the first time in a coon's age. Marsha Colbert plays Vera, the matriarch of the Sanders clan, while elder brother Jerry Colbert portrays her brother-in-law Stanley, the penitent black sheep of the singing family. Greta Marie Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl, who have bunked together in recent years on the Tarradiddle Players' van (with impressive road stops at their Children's Theatre home base in ImaginOn) are also strong components in the quirky chemistry.

Zandstra is June Sanders, provider of makeshift sign-language translations for the family hymns, mugging with an extravagance that might make Jerry Lewis blush. As Reverend Oglethrorpe, Pofahl is our host at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, blessing the arrival of the incandescent bulb at his humble sanctuary in 1938, bemoaning the layoffs at the famed pickle factory, and striving to maintain decorum after the onset of the Sanders Family at Saturday evening service.

Mimi Presley Harkness and Jack Stevenson are the relative newcomers in the cast, ably portraying the Sanders twins, Denise and Dennis. The ever-reliable James K. Flynn is the long-suffering patriarch, Burl, a man of Job-like dignity and unshakable simple-mindedness. Be forewarned: Piety runs riot in Mount Pleasant. Dancing, drinking, and sneaking off to Charlotte are all regarded as scandalous backsliding.

Cheddar grits, biscuits-and-gravy, mac and cheese, and fried chicken are among the new down-home revelations on chafing dish maestro Cliff Ottinger's buffet repertoire -- nestled among the familiar lobster-crusted grouper and smoked gouda gratinee. Y'all come next Sunday.

Sue and I spent a marvelous, eclectic evening last Saturday, shuttling between Ovens Auditorium and Halton Theater. Starting with A Philharmonic Evening and making a nightcap out of the Charlotte Folk Society's 25th Anniversary Concert, we ranged from the majesty of Finlandia by Sibelius -- and the verve of his Karelia Suite -- to the wondrous wallow of JC Honeycutt's snout-clad band singing and kazooing their merry way through "Pig Is Pig."

My other folk faves during the final hour of the Folk Society marathon were Carolina Gator Gumbo, Magpye, and the inimitable Burford Brothers, whose frenetic vulgarity almost made Honeycutt seem refined and relaxed by comparison. Nor was there any comparison between the enthusiasm of the rowdy folkies and the Charlotte Philharmonic crowd.

Perhaps they were pouting. Philharmonic impresario Albert Moehring actually succeeded in training his audience to withhold applause between movements of Mozart's Symphony #40. Civilization marches on!

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