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Snuggling Up to Guilt & Shame 

Comedy motivates White Men Dancing

Watching the agonies and midlife crises of Stuart and Dell in White Man Dancing, you can easily forget that playwright Stephen Metcalfe conceived their struggles as a comedy. Yes, there's an absurdist wink or two from Stuart, a playwright himself, as he hurriedly jots down a sentence he has spoken for use in a future script -- or confesses to Dell that a line he's just spoken is plagiarized from his own past work.

But Dell's demons are real. An actor with palpable magnetism, he has left his appealing wife for reasons that are nebulous even to him. After moving in with Stuart, he's incapable of resisting either his wife or the actress he bedded on the road -- though he keeps telling Stuart he's through with both women. Drawn though he is to intimacy, he's terrified of commitment and its inevitable byproducts: children and responsibility. His fears are not altogether unwarranted. Aside from roles in Stuart's plays, Dell is mostly unemployed.

Abandoned by his wife, Stuart can only wish for Dell's dilemma. Unsure whether the financial backers of his next script will buy the idea of casting Dell, Stuart writes his friend a check for $3000 about as nonchalantly as taking spare change from his pocket. When Dell's wife Bonnie leans on his shoulder for sympathy, Stuart follows her to bed. Later when he tells us a story that has haunted him since his prom days, illustrating his enduring inadequacy with women (and discomfort with his own body), you might get the notion that Metcalfe is using Stuart to plumb the depths of his own guilt and shame.

For Metcalfe doesn't write stage works to survive, let alone for fame and wealth. He has those aplenty from screenplays such as Cousins and Roommates and contributor's credits for Pretty Woman, Mr. Holland's Opus, and Arachnophobia. On the evidence of Act 1, the payoff for Metcalfe is largely purgation and penitence.

But as we get to know Stuart and Dell better, we realize that comedy is the bedrock motivation after all. There's an elegant arc to Metcalfe's design once Bonnie announces that she is pregnant, beautifully captured in this CAST/Generations Theatre Group co-production. Bonnie doesn't know which of the two friends is the father. That's dandy because while Stuart wants to participate as Bonnie's partner in Lamaze-type classes and the birthing process, Dell doesn't. So Dell winds up growing as much by excluding himself from his family life as Stuart does by enfolding himself into it.

Generations co-founder Robert Tolan softens the contours of his protagonists in his casting. We're not subjected to a nerd-hunk coupling -- or a recycled Odd Couple -- but I'm not always sure Tolan catches all of Metcalfe's comedy signals. A little less anger from Mike Harris as Dell and lot more conceited vanity would add considerable sparkle, but Harris really isn't equipped to go there. Meanwhile, Tony Wright would probably be more into Stuart's ideal groove if he were prissier and perhaps a tad condescending -- and he could stand to nail his growth curve a little more emphatically at the end -- but his choices are remarkably plausible and effective.

Bonnie never appears at Stuart's pad. Instead she's either holding a phone upstage or materializing in flashbacks -- interrupted by numerous freezes as the man participating in the dialogue pauses to narrate it to his friend. Cynthia Farbman makes these unique flashbacks work beautifully in her best local outing since Thumbs back in 2001. With a lot of boo-hooing.

Even if you had never heard the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra before last Friday night, you'd have to say that Catherine Ruckwardt's American debut conducting Dvorak's New World Symphony was a resounding success. If you were a longtime CSO subscriber, satisfaction would likely be displaced by amazement.

All you needed to know about Ruckwardt's abilities -- and her gripping concepts -- was on display in the first movement of the Dvorak. There wasn't a trace of muddiness from the ensemble in full cry, and the brass were close to perfection. Shifts in tempo, carefully sculpted phrasing, and sudden changes in dynamics brought fresh vitality to this old warhorse. Ruckwardt spurred it to a gallop at the climax of the allegro section with a frenzy of enthusiasm that was irresistible and contagious.

Perhaps because all of Ruckwardt's energy and enthusiasm was aimed toward them -- rather than showboating for us -- the ensemble eagerly responded. The sharpness of their concentration matched their spirit as the opening ended with a breathtaking snap.

Then the rich orchestral textures of Dvorak's familiar largo blossomed forth as Ruckwardt drew out all of its pristine feeling and primeval mystery. Terry Maskin played the English horn solos with immaculate woodland grace, and if the violin-cello duet wasn't as exquisite as the woodwind trio, it was only because the winds warbled longer.

The more modernistic fare prior to intermission was presented with admirable aplomb. John Corigliano's "Tournaments Overture" was more than a mere romp, offering episodes of sadness, sweetness, and pastoral calm with tasty solo morsels for viola, cello, bassoon, and especially for principal flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead. Ruckwardt and the ensemble then receded into the background, delving into the eccentric textures of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto. Guest soloist Terrence Wilson didn't duplicate the lyricism that the concerto's dedicatee, John Browning, achieves in his recordings. But what Wilson yielded in nuance and coloration he replaced with spirit and fire.

You don't get to see many live performances of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, but rarity wasn't the only attraction of last weekend's CPCC Opera Theatre production. A promising and beautiful songbird took flight in the pivotal role of Leila, the chaste princess beloved by a righteous Ceylonese king and his best bud. Nora Wagoner's breath control occasionally sounded as unschooled as her French. But there was genuine pearlescence in the blonde soprano's voice that extended to the peak of her range, and the agility of her coloratura tempted me to forget the woodenness of her acting.

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