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STAGE REVIEW : Taper’s ‘Visions’ Makes Connections : Theater: A strong start for the festival of so-called absurdist and quasi-absurdist plays. The works seem funnier, more accessible today.

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Are we ready for this? Thirteen plays from the ‘50s and ‘60s, undiluted, unupdated, unmolested by self-important directors and relatively untampered with?

This writer is. For one.

A look back is almost always an enhancement to looking ahead. It makes for interesting connections. And Edward Parone, who conceived and produced “50/60 Vision,” the festival of so-called absurdist and quasi-absurdist plays at the Mark Taper Forum, has been picky about which ones to include (less picky about which ones to ex clude, but we can’t have everything). The first three--Harold Pinter’s “The Collection” and Samuel Beckett’s “Play” and “Krapp’s Last Tape"--kicked off the event at a press preview Tuesday, attended by an enthusiastic but smallish audience. Why?

Is anyone out there intimidated by these plays? No need to be.

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If anything, the passage of time has only magnified their large quotient of humor, and changing theatrical conventions--new then but familiar now, their mold forever shattered by some of these very plays--have made them accessible. Starting with Beckett’s 30-minute “Play.” What comedy could be more human than that of three people standing in their funerary urns, only their talking heads exposed, endlessly regurgitating the important events in their lives--events that also happened to link them to one another and may have provoked their deaths?

These dead persons, who may not know they’re dead, were once in love or at least in lust. The man (John Nesci) is eternally (and interchangeably) flanked by his mistress and his wife (Teri Garr and Gloria Mann). They speak a mile a minute and it’s nearly impossible to follow what they say, except that they say it three times and eventually you get it--or the hang of it. It is about nothing less ordinary than a garden variety menage a trois , with the usual lies, deceptions, omissions and double-dealings. But it’s amazing how funny they look in perspective, let alone the perspective of the “other” side--particularly when the man can’t get rid of the final vestige of his fleshly existence: a totally silly hiccup.

It’s salvation humor, the laughter one chooses when one is well beyond tears. As in Krapp’s case.

The ruined old man at the center of “Krapp’s Last Tape” is still trying to figure out what hit him. Where did his youth, ambition, affirmation and energy all go? We hear their former presence in the arrogant timbre of his voice resurrected on the old spoooooools (a word he rolls around his mouth like butterscotch candy) on his battered reel-to-reel, as he sits disheveled in his disheveled room. (True, despite their decrepit condition, the recorder and tapes sound very state-of-the-art, but let’s leave it at dramatic license--or excusable trompe l’oreille .)

Nesci plays Krapp as a booming King Lear, sneaking bananas and stealing nips from a bottle he keeps under lock and key. In his solitary state, Krapp--the name is not an onomatopoeic accident--is reduced to concealing his drinking from himself . Tears would be an unthinkable alternative in such a state of terminal self-derision. So Krapp opts for fierceness--a railing legacy on his “last” tape.

When it comes to Pinter, the interplay becomes more circumspect and more weighted with earthly preoccupations.

In “The Collection,” directed by Carey Perloff, we confront the instability of truth. James (Christopher Allport) has reason to believe that his wife Stella (Maria O’Brien) has fooled around with Bill (Michael Tulin), a young man who lives with an older man named Harry (Alan Oppenheimer).

The pace is deliberate, the action pregnant with those notorious Pinter pauses, the air fraught with confrontation and repressed violence, the language laconic.

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The humor? Implicit in re-experiencing a situation where everything is visible and nothing is clear. Is Bill bisexual? Did he have an affair with Stella? Did he not? Why is James so fascinated with Bill? How far will he push it? How far will Harry let him push it? And what of Stella, about whom nobody seems to care very much at all?

There are no answers. This is a theater that loves to ask questions, earthly and not-so-earthly. It is not about sets (though Yael Pardess has provided perfectly decent ones) or lights (Paulie Jenkins delivers the requisite ones) or costumes (no one looks out of place in Julie Weiss’ costumes).

And it is not about directors. Perloff, Michael Arabian (he staged “Krapp’s Last Tape”) and Daniel O’Connor (“Play”) are to be commended for the extent to which they remain invisible. “50/60 Vision” is about writers . Ten more plays to go.

At 135 N. Grand Ave., April 13, 19, 25, 29, May 1 and 12 at 8 p.m. Matinees March 31 and May 6 at 2:30 p.m. Ends May 12. Tickets: $22-$28; (213) 972-7373, (213) 410-1062, (714) 634-1300, TDD (213) 680-4017.

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