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THEATER REVIEW : ‘FIRST NIGHT’ HAS A DREAMLIKE AIR ABOUT ITS PLOT

At first glance, the premise seems cute enough to gag on: A man meets his 8th-grade love 20 years later, only to wonder if he can find true happiness with--what? Is she a nun now? . . . Or isn’t she?

Nine times out of 10, such adorable ideas function like glorified hatracks on which to hang musty old jokes.

What a delight to find that “First Night,” playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through Dec. 19, is the 10th case.

Just as Fred Astaire was able to dance with a hatrack and make it look good, so playwright Jack Neary, here having his West Coast debut, is able to sidestep the cliches and find the humor and the heart in this touching little encounter.

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You think the story is a little far-fetched? You won’t get a quarrel from Vinny, the man to whom all this supposedly happens on New Year’s Eve in 1987.

Vinny tells you up front that this is a fantasy--his fantasy. And when Meredith comes into the video store he manages and starts pushing the story faster and further than he had planned on, he snaps his fingers, freezing the action, and reminds us again that this is his dream and that there are certain limits to what Meredith can and cannot say. Then he snaps his fingers again, action resumes, and she says the thing that shocks him anyway.

There may have been a time when movies and live theater were at war with each other. This play runs like an affectionate homage to the silver screen. Under Olive Blakistone’s capable direction, the play curves from narration to action with seamless ease.

It makes sense that there are two televisions playing “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the beginning and the end of the show, with the song “Auld Lang Syne” being sung by the movie and play characters at the same time. After all, Vinny doesn’t merely rent out movies--or dreams if you will--he lives, thinks and breathes them to the point of indefinitely postponing reality.

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Searching for a way to describe himself, Vinny comes up with “The Natural"--"not big box office, lots of good stuff.” When later he and Meredith fight, they literally throw cassettes at each other--everything from “Psycho” to “The Ten Commandments.”

If Vinny lives in a world of movies, Meredith’s boundaries are defined by the static images afforded by her omnipresent camera and scrapbook. The quirky one-night courtship between the two raises the question of whether Meredith can leap from reality to a movie-like dream and Vinny can make of his long-standing dream a reality.

It takes two strong talents to tango in a two-person play. Happily, Vinny Ferrelli and Carmen Beaubeaux each makes these seemingly ordinary characters extraordinary in their appeal.

Ferrelli gets better as he gets deeper into the part, moving from the storyteller role to become the fellow frightened that his fantasy might actually come true. Beaubeaux is riveting from the first moment--smiling, teasing and for most of the story demurely tantalizing--as she keeps the true reason for her visit just ever so slightly out of reach.

Both are well-served by Judy Lokits’ simple, appropriate costumes. Beaubeaux is particularly appealing in a dress that looks like just the modest and attractive choice Meredith would make for this long-deferred summit. The set by Ocie Robinson, nicely lighted by Scott Davis, provides a wry Hollywood heaven--all blue skies, pillars and clouds, down to the covers on the videotapes. Just one small Christmas tree stands out as a green, red-festooned reminder of the season.

It all contributes to a dreamy effect, underlining the larger dream of the theater itself. After five years, the North Coast Rep will be moving with its next show to a new, 205-seat theater, also in Lomas Santa Fe Plaza.

“FIRST NIGHT”

By Jack Neary. Director is Olive Blakistone. Set by Ocie Robinson. Lighting by Scott Davis. Costumes by Judy Lokits. Stage manager is Rosemary Tyrrell. With Vinny Ferrelli and Carmen Beaubeaux. At 8 p.m. Thursday--Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays with Sunday matinees at 2. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach.

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