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Escape from the Moral Abyss 

If Hansel and Gretel ever got lost in the mind of local playwright Sean Michael O'Donnell, they would never, not even with a bakery's worth of bread crumbs, find their way out again. Designed, apparently, by M.C. Escher, and consisting of hallways inside rooms leading to hallways inside rooms, O'Donnell's brain is a buffet of associational matrices that'll leave your own mind spinning.

Take the latest show O'Donnell and his partner Todd Collar are staging at their New Olde Bank Theatre, in Verona. It's called Escape from the Moral Abyss (following previous Moral Abyss evenings, all with Planet of the Apes prefixes). It features five comedy skits written by O'Donnell and directed by either him or Collar.

The closing piece of the first act is called "Rebecca Doesn't Live Here Anymore." But what seems to be, at first, a send-up of the du Maurier/Hitchcock gothic classic Rebecca is soon lampooning (big breath): The Exorcist, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Bells of Saint Mary, The Jeffersons, Gone With the Wind, Annie and probably about 15 other things I didn't catch.

Another skit, "Mrs. Willy Loman Need Not Apply," skewers Agnes of God, Hedda Gabler, Macbeth and Streetcar Named Desire.

While there is no question that sitting in an audience and watching the ideas inside O'Donnell's head richochet off the stage walls can be an astonishing experience, I'm not sure how theatrically rewarding it is. For one thing, his references can be obscure: I'm fairly certain, for instance, that there were maybe three of us in the audience who'd ever actually seen a production of Agnes of God.

Moreover, his aim is extravagantly scattershot -- and unfocused and loose are two things that always work against comedy. These two skits, plus "MacBUSH" (a George W. Bush parody) soon totter under the bloated weight of too many textually unsupported references.

When O'Donnell does force himself to focus on one story and write with control, he moves from gag writer to comedic playwright. "Three Women in a Theatre, Auditioning" and "Audition 101" are both very funny pieces filled with clever insight and strong backbone. More of these types of plays please, Mr. O'Donnell.

The production is a true "community theater" event, and the acting talent is about as varied as you can imagine. But I enjoyed the women in "Three Women ...", the men in "MacBUSH," and Linda Tracey Kennedy and Jennifer Schaupp, both of whom seemed to have graduated from the Carol Burnett School of Comedy Mugging.

 

Escape from the Moral Abyss continues through Sat., July 25. New Olde Bank Theatre, 722 Allegheny River Blvd, Verona. 412-251-7904 or www.newobt.com

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