Times Theater Writer

Fertilization Trauma won't be found in your medical dictionary, but when you have the sly mind of a Murphy Guyer, you delight--no, you exult--in putting your finger on the absurdities of modern life and running with them.

It's what Guyer does best in "The American Century," the first of two one-acts that comprise his "American Satire" at Theatre West.

I mean, look at the situation.

On advice from his psychiatrist, a mixed-up guy from the '80s revisits the scene of his conception in the mid-'40s, the better to confront his problems. Instead, of course, he confronts his astounded parents, who have the audacity to insist on knowing who is this sullen stranger walking through their kitchen.

The man/child reluctantly admits to his identity and feeds them all kinds of really depressing information about their future that they can hardly begin to assimilate. For instance, they discover that Dad became a drunk and torched the house and that they had four screwed-up kids. One of them, they are told, is gay.

"Gay . . . ?" says Mom, baffled.

"Don't tell him," warns the visiting time-traveler. "He's still in the closet."

"In the closet ?," says Mom, looking around. "What closet? Well, at least, he's gay. . . . "

Who but a real troublemaker would concoct such wicked ways to debunk the myth of happily ever after?

There's plenty more of this sort of amusement in "American Century," all of it stemming from this clash of consciousnesses and how the matter-of-fact disasters of the future unsettle this bushy-tailed, bobby-soxed couple from the '40s. Anyone who identifies personally with the period will laugh all the harder, in spite of the fact that the vision is fundamentally a dark one and that Guyer hasn't really found an ending for his play.

Nor have Nick Segal and Catherine MacNeal as the mother and father quite come to terms with the gushiness of their '40s personas, but Bob McCracken as their son is thoroughly comfortable walking all over their bruising egos and laying them to waste. Director Michael Barker might help matters along by quickening the pace.

The second play on the bill, "The American Satirist," is directed by the author and located entirely in the Here and Now--the waiting room of a doctor's office.

This one's more of a one-note affair and derives its humor not from contrasting periods but contrasting types: the confident, upwardly mobile yuppie whose complacence irritates the hell out of the down-at-the-heel, unshaven radical neurotic sharing the room.

Andrew Parks and Kelly Franett are excellent at playing respective ends of the social spectrum. Again, Guyer gets a lot of comic mileage out of pitting the radical, rancorous truth-teller (Parks) against the self-satisfied hypocrite (Franett).

Obliqueness of vision and honesty of heart may be strange bedfellows, but they make for interesting on stage collisions of convention and logic. Guyer (whose brutally dark "World of Mirth" is currently playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company) picks at social veneer the way a perverse child pulls the wings off flies.

Being an actor as well as a writer also helps. Like fellow actor/playwrights Stephen Metcalf ("Strange Snow," "Emily") and Samm-Art Williams ("Home," "Eyes of the American"), Guyer knows how real people talk. He's a writer with original thoughts who just needs to work on his endings.

Christopher Clark's sets and Ilene Cooley's lighting are functionally spare and Laura Mellencamp's costumes on target.

Performances at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West (in the Pass) run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., until Nov. 23 (213) 851-4839.

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