Capitalism doesn't always equal freedom, especially in the arts. That's the bitter pill served up by Nagle Jackson's The Quick-Change Room at the Denver Center Theatre Company. The message goes down easily--sweetened by Jackson's piquant humor--but it burns in the belly.

It's a slow burn, too. The play demonstrates some of the more indigestible aspects of the Eastern Bloc's rocky transition from communism to capitalism. The almighty dollar (or, in this case, ruble) can be as harsh and manipulative a censor as any politburo. Money talks, but when the people holding the purse strings are particularly crude and obnoxious, the chatter can be poisonous. Meanwhile, the Mafia crouches spiderlike in every corner, waiting to ingest the unwary.

As the play opens, perestroika has set in, Gorbachev is trying to hold together the fraying ends of the Soviet Union, and there is still no soap in the bathrooms at the Kuzlov Theatre in St. Petersburg. Artistic director Sergey (played with luminous wit by Tony Church) has chosen Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters for the new season, and he's selected one of the conservatory's most promising young actresses to play the role of the youngest sister. Nina is adorable and fresh--and utterly amoral. But she's a sympathetic figure at first, beleaguered by the jealousy of an older actress and pursued by the theater's scoundrel of a marketing director. As the story progresses, she will doff all her scruples in favor of ambition, climbing to stardom via the age-old bedsheet ladder.

Inflation is raging out of control, and the price of theater tickets skyrockets. For the first time in its history, the Kuzlov's ticket sales fall off. Layoffs in the theater reach 50 percent as artists and techies who've had secure positions are turned out in the street. Everyone is stretched so thin that cues are missed, costumes disintegrate, and when the lights burn out, there's no one to replace them. In an attempt to drum up business, marketing director Boris (Alex Wiphis, supremely slimy in the role) pushes Sergey out of his office and takes over. Ultimately, Boris gives in to his mistress Nina's bizarre scheme to make Three Sisters into a musical.

Preposterous. We all laugh at the absurdity of turning Chekhov's masterpiece into a vehicle for show tunes. But it's just the kind of tawdry prostitution of art for profit that would happen, and does--in this country, too.

Erin J. O'Brien gives Nina childlike freshness that gradually erodes into childish egotism. Peggy Pope as her exasperated mother, the quick-change wardrobe mistress of the Kuzlov, brings the right comic finesse to the role, though she and O'Brien have little chemistry together as mother and daughter.

The show itself is less concerned with character than it is with social policy, but the characters fit snugly. David Kay Mickelsen's admirable set, though not ragged enough to convey the Kuzlov's deteriorating condition, has a comfortable integrity as the characters move from one spot to another. The effect is like movie editing, really: Lights go down on one scene and instantly come up on another part of the stage. The brisk pace perfectly suits the play, and Paul Weidner's direction is as crisp as crackers.

Playwright Jackson has no intention of giving a balanced picture of the tradeoffs made as communist countries hazard the challenges of capitalism. He has focused instead on a slice of reality few like to contemplate--the effect ruthless money-grubbing has on a society and on the arts--and it's not a pretty vision.

Though his subject is very serious, Jackson keeps the tone of the play almost frothy. He deftly parodies American musical-comedy conventions, skewering the banalities of the form without losing his own artful balance. His handling of the absurdities of greed never goes too far--and he keeps you laughing.


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