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The Passion of Strangers 

Two couples yearn for a lot more than they get at Cesear's Forum.

Trying through language to forge an intimate connection with another person is often a confounding enterprise, much like attempting to have a serious discussion with a Magic 8-Ball. No sooner do you think you're making progress with clear responses and unambiguous feedback ("It is certain") than you're confronted with vexing vagueness ("Reply hazy"), buck-passing ("My sources say no"), or downright procrastination ("Ask again later"). Of course, if you're frustrated, you can chuck the 8-Ball in your junk drawer, but it's a little harder when your correspondent is a real live partner.

The verbal intricacies of personal relationships are explored in two intriguing one-acts now being presented by Cesear's Forum at Playhouse Square Center. Summer Evening by Wallace Shawn and What Is Making Gilda So Gray? by Tom Eyen are two-person plays that approach the issue of human bonding with stylized bemusement and offbeat, nonlinear language. And while there are a number of amusing moments throughout, the lingering effect is akin to the impact of certain abstract paintings that convey a specific emotional state through the use of intentionally imprecise details.

In Summer Evening, a man and woman are staying in a resort hotel, each simmering in a stew of repressed sexuality. When alone and speaking to the audience (or themselves), they express their wants with bold clarity. He vows that he longs "to be hugged, bound up, kissed," while she says, "There's nothing I wouldn't do for pleasure; I'd stick a hot poker up my ass if I thought I'd enjoy it." But when they're together, she avoids his touch and spends her time changing wardrobes and nibbling on a fruit platter, choosing to ignore how those props could be used splendidly in sex play, while he reads and aches for contact.

Scott Esposito and Kat McIntosh handle this arm's-length relationship with civilized obliqueness. But the unvocalized passion in Shawn's script could be enhanced with more physical attitude, while the dialogue scenes seem a bit choreographed, as if the actors are anticipating the abrupt endings of their truncated thoughts.

The second play, What Is Making Gilda So Gray?, ratchets up the absurdity as film director Franco and his wife, Gilda, keep mistaking each other for -- or keep pretending to be -- their fantasy lovers, Humphrey and Julietta. Each picks on the other's vulnerability (her small paunch, his height) and quickly forget each other's little preferences (he prefers his coffee black) as they meet, separate, and rejoin. Playwright Eyen throws plenty of material in this short piece, including a scene from Franco's first film, as he makes some telling points about relationships. (Gilda says, "I can't stand my own happiness, but the happiness of others is even harder to take.")

John Kolibab and Bernadette Clemens are enormously engaging as two people who are trying so hard to compensate that they never connect. Director Greg Cesear has done a splendid job of pairing these quirky plays and staging them on almost identical sets, accentuating the similarities of unattained desire.

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