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Talk about oddball offerings: An extremely obscure, hopelessly overheated Eugene O’Neill playlet and an uproarious but dated Elaine May one-acter aren’t the obvious choices to share a bill. But then the American Century Theater prides itself —occasionally to the point of perversity—in not making obvious choices.

ACT’s Two Masks looks a little less loopy when you see, in the program, the apologia from artistic director Jack Marshall: He’s arguing that the line between comedy and tragedy has blurred to near indistinguishability in our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Monica, premillennial times, and that between our disillusionment and that reflexive ironic distance so many of us wear like armor, our reactions to situations that once seemed straightforwardly horrific or simply hysterical are likely to be somewhat muddled. By throwing both extremes at an audience on opposite sides of an intermission, Marshall and his ACT collaborators want to put our impulses—and, to some degree, our humanity—to the test.

The experiment, I am forced to report, is only about 70 percent successful.

Sure enough, O’Neill’s Thirst, which opens the evening, provokes as many chuckles as it does gasps, but I’m afraid that’s at least as much about the limitations of TACT’s production as it is about the degree to which we’ve become calloused by Cops and Natural Born Killers and the like. Written in 1913, when the Titanic tragedy was still a fresh reality for many, the one-acter confronts an Evelyn Nesbit-y chorus girl, a comfortably middle-class gentleman, and a disturbingly silent sailor with the grim aftermath of shipwreck. Thrown together aboard a barren raft under a merciless sun on an endless expanse of sea, the three characters bicker, broil, and brutalize each other as their awareness of their probable fate becomes increasingly clear.

It’s hard to identify very closely, though, when the latex blisters are peeling visibly from the shoulders of the chorine (Liz Demery) and the gentleman (Bruce Alan Rauscher) is speaking O’Neill’s characteristically formal dialogue in a grating whine. Demery’s delivery is just as unpleasantly shrill, and for all her frantic air, her features (too often hidden by her mussed hair) are not particularly expressive. Michael Replogle fares better as the sailor, but then all he has to do is capitalize on his bulk and the character’s taciturnity to seem solid. There are endlessly dull internal monologues, a red herring or two in the plot, and then a dance, a death, a modest proposal, and a stabbing, but things don’t actually perk up until the last 10 seconds of the play, and I suspect that what happens then is a directorial fillip.

But at base, Marshall’s contention is probably on target. The play’s central concern—the characters’ very different responses to impending death—has lost some of its essential power in the decades since it was written (psychodrama has become a daily ritual rather than an aberration), and the gruesome inevitabilities of its denouement are hardly shocking now. Unthinkable behavior has become more or less what we expect of each other in a crisis, hasn’t it?

What’s funny—explosively funny, in fact, at several points—is how deft those same three performers are with Elaine May’s brisk, brittle comedy. Adaptation is both the title of the playlet that fills the second half of the Two Masks bill and that of the absurdist “game show”—game-of-life show?—that Rauscher, Replogle, and Demery play with able assistance from David Elias as games master and Anne Richardson as a Monica-esque hostess in white go-go boots and sherbet-pink minidress.

The central three rotate rapidly through roles as an ordinary Joe and his father, mother, son, friends, girlfriends, employers, wife, and mistress, not to mention a CIA agent and the odd hanger-on, but the focus is on Rauscher’s contestant, whose middle-class aspirations and all-too-common compromises are the objects of the playwright’s scorn. Rauscher plays the game doggedly, disoriented from time to time by abrupt calls from the games master and never too sure what the ground rules are, only that he’s supposed to be trying to find the “Security” square on Carrie Ballenger’s board-game set. May peppers the play with glib references to draft deferments and garbage strikes, The Prophet and the profit motive, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Chicago convention of ’68, and it’s all bright and funny right up until the end, when the contestant, still looking for a life that’s a bit better than the perfectly acceptable one he’s not been paying enough attention to, drops dead of that quintessentially American-male end note, the heart attack.

If the second half of the evening makes up for the first in terms of polish, it falls short in terms of what Marshall wants his patrons to get out of the pairing. We’ve seen the camp extremes that can arise when O’Neill’s antique style meets modern sensibilities, but Marshall wants us also to find hints of flawed humanity amid the farcical fun in Adaptation. It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice there doesn’t seem to be much there there. CP