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Paul Selig and Philip Barry may have written nearly three-quarters of a century apart, but try sitting through back-to-back performances of Selig’s Mystery School and Barry’s Hotel Universe without playing connect-the-dots. Barry’s sometimes awkward 1930 experiment with the then-novel techniques of psychodrama is less elegantly built than Selig’s slick one-woman show, which had its off-Broadway premiere a couple of years ago with Tyne Daly; look beyond surface and structure, though, and you’ll get a sense of how thoroughly intrigued both plays are with our reactions to life’s darker moments.

Change and loss, struggle and despair, crisis and mortification are all in play at one point or another in the 70 brisk minutes of Round House Theatre’s Mystery School, a crisply directed set of monologues in which a smashing Jane Beard re-creates herself as chain-smoking lesbian, bubbleheaded New Ager, and brittle Establishment matron (and more besides). Her transformations are so elegant and efficient that it’s tempting to say that she accomplishes them with little more than a change of overshirt and a shift in body language, but that wouldn’t quite do justice to her formidable craft: Accents come and go, too, as do vocal colors that imply worlds about the gulf between the opening segment’s bitter religious fundamentalist and the cheerful, slightly mad shrink who gathers the various threads of authorial thought in the closing bit. Beard’s performances are marvels of commitment and clarity even when Selig’s characters aren’t.

The most arresting of them is Amelia, a cynical alcoholic who negotiates what feels like 12 steps of bitterness before her brutally pragmatic notions about higher powers finally begin to crumble under the weight of her desperate need to believe in something; Selig gives her both a keen intelligence and a coarse directness (she and her recently rehabilitated ex-girlfriend shared “a room the size of a colostomy bag”), and Beard makes hay with both.

Most affecting is the dowager who clicks her increasingly frantic way through a surreal slide show in the next-to-last monologue, looking for a psychological anchor among ancient fertility totems, earth-mother imagery, and the infuriating taciturnity of her Latina housekeeper. Selig hints at an emotional crisis (she’s lost her archaeologist husband, apparently, in a dig collapse), and certainly Beard wears the boxy Chanel suit designer Rosemary Pardee has given her like a kind of metaphorical armor against grief. But the actress gives the woman’s pain a vividly physical dimension, too; her movements are stiff and crabbed, her syntax clipped, her tone often on the edge of breaking.

Would that the other three characters were as clearly drawn—Francie the public-access cable psychic is a disarming ditz, but Selig doesn’t do much to distinguish her philosophy from that of Dr. Edie, the questionably credentialed lecturer who closes the show with a follow-your-bliss commencement delivered to what sounds like a class of schizophrenics. (“Wend your way, babies, wend your way,” she cries, encouraging her charges to follow whatever voices have survived the influence of the modern pharmacopeia.) Director Jerry Whiddon has encouraged Beard to play up the former’s quirky klutziness and the latter’s anti-establishment charm, and while she inhabits them, at least, both characters seem a little more substantial than closer examination reveals them to be.

The first monologue’s motel maid, meanwhile, is a thin caricature of Southern fundamentalism;

Selig has realized somewhere along the way that many of the fiercest Bible-beaters feed the flame of belief with the volatile tinder of petty envies and resentments, but the notion loses some of its resonance when it’s attached to such a shopworn stereotype.

Selig is due credit for the deftness with which he implicates the audience in the woman’s hatefulness—her bile begins as amiable, amusing bitchery about the others in her pew, and you laugh along until the words she’s putting in your mouth turn suddenly and uncomfortably sour. And Beard, certainly, plays the harridan with the same commitment she brings to the others, spitting venom in cadences that build and hurry until her body begins to spasm and suddenly she’s speaking in tongues. Still, you can’t escape the feeling that this woman’s pain is somehow less interesting to the playwright than that of the others.

But then for Selig, as for so many of today’s touchy-feely gurus, the act of spiritual seeking seems to be more valid than the finding of any particular faith. Each of his women encounters difficulty and disappointment; in each, they inspire some variety of reaching. Surely it says something that the only character who doesn’t get the playwright’s sympathy is the only one whose belief system is more than vaguely defined.

More shamelessly melodramatic than Mystery School but no less metaphysically inclined, Hotel Universe goes digging in the emotionally fraught gardens of lost love and fractured dreams, and for a while, the production Steven Scott Mazzola has directed for American Century Theater seems as though it’s going to unearth a philosophy as nebulous and New Age as Selig’s: “In every end there’s a beginning,” people keep observing. If what actually emerges—a consensus that too many of us sacrifice future happiness by dwelling on past sadnesses and present regrets—seems like an old-fashioned notion, it wasn’t when the play had its premiere.

Philip Barry, author of The Philadelphia Story and other blithe gems, was apparently no stranger to weightier subjects, and the mix of gloom and wit he produced in Hotel Universe is “a grand sort of strangeness,” to use the phrase he gives his central character to describe her eccentric father; clever and woeful and wonderfully chic, they and the people gathered at their seaside villa are an assemblage to gladden the heart of Barry’s scintillatingly morose contemporary Dorothy Parker.

There’s Ann, who loves Pat, who once adored Ann but loves only irony now and who may be planning his own death; Lilly, an actress whose whole life is a performance read from a revisionist script; Hope, who has none but her children; and her husband, Tom, who’s lost his faith in God and his interest in nearly everything else. And there are Norman and Alice, in love from opposite sides of a cultural chasm, uncertain about the leap it will require.

Central to it all, but absent for most of the play’s first half, is Ann’s father, Stephen, a scientist-turned-mystic who lives in a house at the bottom of the garden—and whose appearance sparks a series of dreamlike re-enactments of the events that have brought the members of this odd lot to their present and variously precarious states of mind.

Onstage group therapy? Yes indeed, and somehow only a little off-putting, sweetened as it is with the agreeable flavors of mild mysticism—Is the house haunted? Is Stephen some sort of prophet?—and Jazz Age glamour. (It’s the interwar years, and the assembled characters are a prosperous bunch.) Things do drag a bit toward the two-thirds mark; once you’ve figured out that everybody’s going to process an issue downstage center, you’ll wait impatiently, wishing Barry would hurry the minor characters along and get on about the business of reuniting Ann and Pat.

The play is sufficiently sentimental for that to be its central concern, but Mazzola’s touch is light and lyrical enough to keep things from getting too cloying; Kerri Rambow’s gently radiant Ann helps smooth over the play’s weak spots, too, and her expressive performance seems to inspire Ian LeValley, whose Pat is nearly her match for subtlety and warmth.

The play peaks with a wonderfully intimate scene that connects their past to the present and on through to a future that won’t necessarily be one of unalloyed joy, and Mazzola’s sensitive staging of this emotional pivot-point takes visual and aural cues from Stephen’s main metaphysical argument: that life, death, memory, and imagination “are one—we dwell now in this one, now in that, but in whichever we may be, breezes from the others still blow upon us.” The conceit sounds almost too literal on the page, but Mazzola and his central twosome make it play with an aching beauty.

Rusty Clauss, a sweetly regretful Older Ann hovering now and then about the periphery, contributes to the marvelous melancholy of both that scene and the play as a whole; so do Ricki Kushner’s score and Edu. Bernardino’s typically chic costumes, the latter so thoroughly evocative of Lost Generation languor as to be their own delicate variety of mourning. And whether it’s Mazzola’s direction or the example of the lead actors, John Dow is an unusually solid asset, his tendency toward mannerism seemingly tempered for the nonce. The supporting cast is generally sure and capable, with one mildly distracting weak link (callow Patrick Sweetman) and a standout in Allyson Currin, whose tart Lilly is a tonic who can match Pat quip for cynical quip.

One could wish for little things—a less pedestrian set (Eric Grims’ stuccoed verandah feels a bit too solid to be a gate between this world and the next) or one less set of issues to resolve. But Hotel Universe is one of those productions that justify American Century’s dedication to exploring the dusty recesses of the under-produced play archive—proof positive that in theater at least, if not in theosophy, the finding is what makes the reaching worthwhile. CP