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Black Humor

Now that the holidays have been dispensed with, the South Florida theater scene kicks back into gear with a flurry of new shows and openings. No fewer than 20 productions open this month, and behind them is another truckload of shows rolling up in February. Meanwhile, several intriguing, unique shows are finishing out their runs. If you haven't done so already, catch two in particular, the devilishly funny Black Sheep at Florida Stage and a unique one-man show, Art Metrano's Accidental Comedy, at the Coconut Grove Playhouse Encore Room. Both shows are scheduled to close soon.

Black Sheep is the second Lee Blessing play that Florida Stage has produced this season after opening with a weak staging of Thief River. But this time around, the theater has a spectacular hit, some of the best theater this area has seen in quite a while. Blessing's script takes gleeful aim at racial relations, the indolent rich, and insipid pop culture with a bravura theatricality that is a dazzling, welcome departure from his earlier, more traditional plays. The story has to do with a likable ex-con Carl, who comes to visit his wealthy relatives, wiling away their time at a lakeside estate. Carl (Brandon Morris), who was convicted of murdering his white half brother, is the family oddball, the product of a biracial marriage that was a family scandal. Still, he's welcomed with open arms by family patriarch Nelson (Jonathan Bustle) and his wife, Serene (Angie Radosh), who plan to adopt him and help him start life anew. But Carl soon discovers his family has secret plans for him, as each member wants him to bump off the others to gain the family fortune.

Is this for real or just something he's dreaming? Carl's not sure, and neither are we, as the story takes many a bizarre turn. This is a weird funhouse of a play with an array of deliciously droll characters, including Paul Tei as Max, the bratty family heir, and Caitlin Miller as his slinky scheming girlfriend, Elle.

Black Sheep is a very dry black comedy that guest director Michael Bigelow Dixon has staged as a phantasmagoric dream: Sense suddenly turns into nonsense and characters seem to appear and disappear again as the physical locations change and mutate. Dixon, literary manager for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, has an elegant, spare directing style and a strong visual sense. Victor Becker's all-white set, a seemingly endless array of panels and screens, is a marvelous, ever-shifting playing space, to which he adds a gorgeous lighting design. Lynda Peto's all-white costumes add a casual elegance while the complex music and sound score by Michael Roth add a balance of playfulness and menace.

Carl is the straight man of the story, a likable, ordinary guy who happens to have had a run of bad luck and the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Morris plays Carl in a deadpan manner that works well, though Morris seems perhaps a bit tentative as a leading man. Still, he holds his own among the array of wild characters. Tei's Max is hilarious, a frustrated rich boy who has the emotional maturity of a four year old paired with an endlessly frustrated libido. Radosh as Serene manages a good balance, teetering between plausibility and a tongue-in-cheek absurdism.

Another worthy production is playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Art Metrano's Accidental Comedy. Metrano, a veteran film and television actor, is a comedian whose life story isn't very funny: When he fell from the roof of his house, he broke his neck in six places and was completely paralyzed. His slow recovery and ultimate triumph is the subject of a remarkably entertaining one-man show.

Metrano's tale starts off with a video montage of his early career: his comedy act on The Tonight Show, his jokey performances in the Police Academy movies, and other clips. Then Metrano makes his entrance, in a wheelchair. Metrano is a born comic -- he's happy slinging out the old borscht belt jokes that he interweaves with the darker story of his accident and his slow recovery. He talks about his early days as a Jewish boy in Brooklyn, with an abusive father and loving mother, his earlier brush with death when he was shot by an enraged parking attendant, and his relationship with his WASPy wife. Although Metrano's a funny guy, he's not a particularly likable one. His humor is coarse, crude, riddled with deplorable ethnic stereotypes and a general dyspepsia underneath the comic patter.

He's hiding something, it first appears. Even his acting style seems forced. Though he's telling you what really happened to him, it doesn't sound real. It feels like a performance. But as delicately staged by Joe Bologna, the show moves from razzle to honesty as the reality of what happened to him slowly creeps into Metrano's performance. Metrano describes a harrowing incident when he's lying in a hospital bed, unable to move his arms or legs. A nurse carelessly closes the door to his recovery room, leaving him alone in the darkness. Suddenly claustrophobic, he panics but can't move to ring the buzzer to get the nurse. It's at this point that Metrano's account becomes suddenly, vividly alive. Through his terror and vulnerability, Metrano the patient confronted his own despair, and Metrano the performer makes a profound connection with that feeling: it's an electric, brutally honest theatrical moment, and from then, Metrano's show takes on new meaning. He drops the smart-ass, tough-guy pose, abandons the prison of victimhood, and starts looking for what's real and good about his life. By the end of his show, Metrano has found the courage to face the truth -- the good, the bad, and the ugly, head-on.

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Ronald Mangravite

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