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Theater reviews: 1984 and 2 Across 

Getting to watch Big Brother

In a recent New Yorker piece on the democratizing effect of paperback novels on the American book industry and our reading habits, the steamy cover of George Orwell's 1984 serves as the poster child for the whole phenomenon. Books were set loose from the confines of mail-order book clubs and scarce, far-flung bookstores, free to roam — and be picked up cheaply, on impulse — at newsstands, drug stores, lunch counters, and train stations. Luring customers, publishers blurred the lines between the pulps and the classics on their book covers, employing the same hacks (I mean, artists) to illustrate both.

After I had read 1984, Orwell wasn't perched on top of my list of great romance writers or of fine craftsmen chronicling sexual activity. So at a distance of a half century, I'm hard-pressed to recall what force was stronger in keeping my keen interest as I turned the pages: The romance between Winston Smith and Julia, oppressed under the rule of Big Brother, or Orwell's acute observations on the machinations of totalitarian regimes. At that same distance, it isn't difficult at all to tell you which of those components I remember most vividly.

Julia's name and existence had long faded from my memory when Citizens of the Universe opened 1984 last week at a promising new theater space that's carved, guerilla style, into the vast warehouse at 200 E. 36th Street. You enter through a welcoming little lobby, and the performing space is like a curtained-off area at a convention center with an iconic telescreen embedded in the middle of the upstage curtain. Seating is more unique, with a regal platform behind a few rows of chairs, where sightlines are presumably better than they would be at floor level. Central heating, however, is a work-in-progress.

The stage adaptation by Wilton E. Hall Jr., Robert Owens, and William A Miles Jr. revived my memories of Julia, the wily O'Brien, and the brainy, pedantic Syme, all of whom toil at the Ministry of Love in the one-time future world of Oceania. We get a good taste of the office politics and the forbidden romance that propel the storyline of 1984 forward, but there's proportionally more emphasis on Orwell's brilliant political analysis — cynical totalitarian slogans such as "War Is Peace" and his enduring coinages, including newspeak, doublethink, and Big Brother himself. MS Word's spellcheck dares not correct any of these.

COTU's production can be faulted for the dullish acting and directing that crops up occasionally — and for the refrigerated ambiance that enfolds it — but the force of Orwell's vision is unscathed. It may be erroneous to suggest that Brian Willard has more than one variety of gravitas at his command, and romance with Julia might spark more convincingly if Kristin Varnell had drawn a more responsive partner. Director Michael Anderson doesn't help matters with some pointless blocking. Nor does he crack the whip on behalf of energy often enough.

Perhaps Anderson's operating theory is that Big Brother's rule has robotized even ruling party workers such as Winston, who works diligently at rewriting his nation's history until doubts arise — and Julia makes her audacious advances. Maybe there's a tranquilizer infused into the "Victory" coffee that Winston and his co-workers must drink, causing his torpor.

Whatever Willard's shortcomings may be on the receiving end of Varnell's romantic overtures, he's wondrously transformed when the lovers are captured. Willard does fear and horror really well, so the scenes of physical and psychological torture are gripping. Of course, he gets fabulous stimulus from Robert Brafford as O'Brien, a hard-as-steel tormentor with a handsome, villainous smirk. Jesse Boykin Kimmel as the innocent Syme and Kelly Ogden as the persnickety snitch Parsons aren't as powerful, but they're nearly as fine. James Cartee appears as Big Brother — exclusively on telescreen — looking more like the old paperback illustration than anyone else onstage.

In an age awash with facile and jejune dystopias, we can be grateful that COTU has delivered such a meaty and fearsome version of the original. If you haven't read Orwell since you were 15, you might find that he was even more profound and astute than you remembered. I did.

Charlotte's theatre weekend was already numerical enough with 1984 opening at the same time that nuVoices 3 was unfolding at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.

Add to that the local premiere of 2 Across at UpStage in NoDa — presented by Three Bone Theatre — and the alphabet could be fretting over its adequacy.

Written by Jerry Mayer and subtitled "A Comedy of Crosswords and Romance," 2 Across takes place entirely on a BART train in the San Francisco Bay area — in the wee hours of the morning when a two-hander would be plausible. The script observes the classic unities, designed to play for 82 minutes without an intermission. With Mara Rosenberg and Phil Robertson as the leads under the direction of Rachel Jeffreys, they nearly hit the mark exactly on Sunday night, clocking in at 80:42.

Both Janet and Josh have their newspapers opened to the daily crossword puzzle as they board the train, but Janet is serious about solving each morning's challenge while Josh merely dabbles and gives up. Janet is on her way back home from an explosive airport farewell with her son, who is leaving against her wishes to join the Marines, while Josh is on his way to an interview with Banana Republic after quitting his father's button business.

Josh gets more than he bargains for when he asks for help and hints with the puzzle. Not only does Janet frown upon cheating and shortcuts, she believes that crosswords are a template for life: if you ponder the clues closely, persevere, and complete your puzzle, you will succeed. If Josh completes today's puzzle before the train arrives at its final stop, Janet assures him that he will nail the Banana Republic job.

For his part, Josh is not above meddling in Janet's life, which is strictly circumscribed by the rules. She won't accept Josh's offer of a sandwich because of the sign posted against eating at the rear of the empty car, and she bristles at the very thought of keeping the library book in her purse past its due date, even when Josh offers her a dollar for the fines. Both of the commuters bend during the trip, Josh agreeing to finish the puzzle if he can rendezvous with Janet after the interview to share the result. Meanwhile, Janet loosens up enough to break a rule or two. You will not only see her eat; she will also drink!

Robertson loudly plays the loose cannon, somewhat pushy but not too much for a mid-lifer who shuns commitment. He's aware that his approach to life hasn't worked, but it probably would take someone like Janet to make him do something about it. Rosenberg is more than sufficiently prim and prissy as Janet, with a wider gulf to cross because she has successfully deluded herself into thinking that she has always chosen the right path — and burned her bridges when she hasn't. An attractive, interested, and helpful man plus a couple of drinks might be necessary to steer her around toward enlightenment, so Rosenberg's initial starchiness eventually yields dividends.

I wasn't totally satisfied with the way that Mayer handles the touchy matter of his protagonists' marriages, but Robertson and Rosenberg deliver the warmth and simple wisdom of his script so naturally that I was able to cut the playwright some slack. Mayer's humor is another key selling point.

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