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STAGE REVIEW : The Comedy,the Drama That Unfolds in’The Dressing Room’

Dramatists love close quarters: a barroom, a jury room, a bedroom, even a ladies’ room. And now we have “The Dressing Room” at the Matrix. Now a backstage comedy/drama may sound like a hoary cliche, but Naomi Caryl’s play enjoys ripe characterization, two rather astonishing performances from David Blackwood and Danae Torn, and rich production design (by Charles Berliner) that unfolds like a set of Chinese boxes.

Director Deirdre Meehan and playwright Caryl developed parts of the play at Theatre West, and the nurturing process shows.

The concept seems to take a page from Alan Ayckbourn’s comedic trilogy, “The Norman Conquests,” in which you followed a single set of events from three viewpoints (albeit over three nights of theater). What Caryl does is segue among four dressing rooms in the hour before curtain time as the actors in a Broadway show arrive backstage, change into ballroom costume, and invade each other’s dressing rooms to bicker, indulge in sexual intrigue and explode in misspent and some direct passion.

The fun is that all the action is taking place at the same time although the dressing room scenes are dramatized one at a time.

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But the production does not merely ask you to believe everything is simultaneous. The mobile physical design, with the actors swiftly moving walls and units and panels, evokes the fluid sense of simultaneity. It is an intricate device, chrome-smooth in execution.

The acting (the chaotic Casey King, the vivid and moony Susan Kohler, dingy Anne Leyden-Howard and smitten Marjorie Bowman) is lacquered and honeyed.

Torn’s chameleonic performance before her mirror is totally unpredictable and recklessly precise, and Blackwood’s insecure, callow, intense lover is a startingly funny turn. Nobody here talks about art or theater.

The greasepaint histrionics trail real shadows in the case of James Bartz’s alcoholic stage manager, Mitzi Hoag’s Tallulah Bankhead-like rapacity, and Nomi Mitty’s crushed hopes.

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Finally, in a wonderful touch, the jars of cold cream shelved, we fade out the play within the play, in all its formal elegance. It’s a rich, ironic ending.

At 7657 Melrose Ave.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m.; through Nov. 6. Tickets: $14-$16.50. (213) 852-1445.


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