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Contemporary playwrights face the same nagging question each time they write a script: Should it be a comedy, a tragedy or a dogmatic disaster-documentary? The latter is mostly the accepted province of Hollywood, and the only form of tragedy that seems to bubble up to the surface these days is the stuff packaged nightly by TV news programs. Which might explain why comedy lies at the heart of virtually every new American play--even "memory plays" that come with a sentimental center.

Local playwright Terry Dodd embraces both sentiment and humor in the Acoma Center's current production of Tales From the Snowside, a holiday show consisting of two Dodd one-acts. Dodd also directs these mini-dramas, a decision that works well for Vaughn, New Mexico, Christmas Eve, 1956. This Reader's Theater piece, which features breathtakingly beautiful language, transports us to a high desert landscape, which Dodd describes in vivid detail.

But not even Dodd's directorial efforts can overcome his own writing faults in the second play: Laurel & Hardy Sleep Together frequently stoops to the level of bathroom humor. As a result, the latter half of the evening brings to mind an adolescent's attempt to tell a few mildly dirty jokes to a group of largely uninterested adults. It's a shame, considering that the first play is such a gem.

Before Vaughn begins, we're given time to take in a simple set of four black music stands, bathed in a light that evokes the brilliantine texture of a moonlit countryside. A large painting depicting two figures riding on horseback against an evening sky hangs from the fly space, and a single row of luminarias at the edge of the stage contributes to the pensive atmosphere. As the lights dim, the distant sounds of a guitarist playing "O Holy Night" echo in the silent theater, and four performers (Brett Aune, Catherine DiBella, Judy Phelan-Hill and Darren Schroader) assume their places behind the quartet of lecterns.

The actors set the scene for us, describing a trip Dodd took with his family when he was a child, and you can almost smell the pinon wood burning over the bleak terrain of New Mexico's high plains. One by one, the performers pick up various parts of the narrative, and we join the playwright and his family as silent companions on their snowy journey. At times Dodd affects a tone worthy of Dylan Thomas (he even borrows a line from one of the Welshman's poems and adapts it to his own story), while at others his writing springs from a distinctly American idiom.

As the performers speak several of the lines in overlapping round-robin fashion, this engrossing play sparks the fires of our own imaginations. One character says, "Anyone in the world who means anything to me is in that car," and the images that appear in our mind's eye are of our own families and personal holiday experiences. Near the end of the poignant drama, we realize that the scant 25 minutes spent with these actors have been as entertaining and thought-provoking as any full-length Christmas show.

What occurs after intermission is a different story altogether. The premise of Laurel & Hardy is simple enough: Danny (Aune) and his college roommate, Robert (Schroader), travel from Boston to Roswell, New Mexico, to celebrate Christmas with Danny's Grandma Tookie (Phelan-Hill) in her Airstream trailer. When the boys arrive, Tookie ushers them into a cramped bedroom that's barely big enough for one person, let alone two grown men. Flyswatter in hand, she orders Robert to wear her late husband's "jammies," and he reluctantly agrees, even though the oversized pants contain visible traces of blood from the rattlesnake attack that apparently did Grandpa in.

Robert can't bring himself to share the same bed with Danny, and the play occasionally hints at issues of homophobia, albeit in a comic fashion. The boys' late-night discussion prompts a few visits from Tookie, though she sometimes appears to exist only in a sort of time warp that neither Dodd's writing nor his staging clarifies. As the play drags on, Danny and Robert trade jokes about flatulence, flushing toilets and the time-honored way in which dogs greet one another. By the time we get to that last subject, the fifty-minute play has reached its nadir, though the actors do manage to salvage a few humorous moments. Each time someone opens the accordion-style door to the bedroom, for example, a switch installed by Tookie trips a stereo that blares country-Western Christmas carols through the trailer. And a small battery-powered Santa doll mysteriously dances and says "Ho, ho, ho!" to the apparent surprise of the actors and the obvious delight of the audience.

This mixed theatrical bag is a fun night of wintry entertainment--the first play alone is worth the price of admission. At intermission, though, you might want to remove your thinking cap before a stale gust of low-grade humor blows it off your head.

Tales From the Snowside, through January 31 at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 623-0524.


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