'Caffeine High' Fails to Brew Up Some Laughs : The scenes get bogged down with gender gabbing and don't flow. Even the coffeehouse camaraderie is weak.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Funny thing about coffeehouses. They serve up liquid refreshments meant to pump you up, but in a setting designed to mellow you out. "Caffeine High," care of the Write/Act company at The Kindness of Strangers coffeehouse, is a lot more mellow than pumped up.

Scattered and self-conscious as only coffeehouse culture can be, director Jan Marlyn Reesman's show is a little bit of acoustic rock (from Not Dead Yet!), a little bit of stand-up (from Audrey Hamilton) and a lot of male-female skits of cafe denizens mixing with each other.

It is staged to link more than two dozen little scenes, some no more than a minute long. The problem is, it doesn't flow. Think of the barroom banter of "The Time of Your Life," the gender clashes of "Cheers," and then eliminate the laughs, and you have "Caffeine High."

It isn't supposed to be this way. You sense that Reesman's ensemble of writers and actors wants to present a not-too-heavy but engaging kaleidoscope of the way we are in the '90s--or at least the way we are when we have a double cappuccino in our hands.

A running tussle between a couple played by Mark Moran and MaryLynn Wissner tries for Howard Hawks-style dialogue, but just meanders. Jody Bradley's angry young guy is a weak lampoon of a whiner, which is about as uninviting as it gets. At least he's a break from the relentless sameness of the scenes' gender gabbing.

Rarely, as in Moran's piece "Blind Date," the dialogue is sharp and to the point, and sharpened further by actors Jef Kerr and Meaghan Eastman. The comedy transcends the staginess, which isn't the case with the vast majority of lame-to-unfunny pieces.

And because you're aware of the staginess, the genial camaraderie and give-and-take of a coffeehouse is totally lost in favor of a bad case of hapless flirting on parade.

Sometimes, "Caffeine High" is so decaffeinated you have to wonder who's behind the theatrical counter, while at other times, it's nowhere near resembling a coffeehouse scene.

The setting is made to do the work that the writing should be doing, and it ends up no more than an exercise. On the other hand, Not Dead Yet! is aptly named--clever, small, intimate, acoustic and ideal with a cup of joe.

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DETAILS

* WHAT: "Caffeine High."

* WHERE: The Kindness of Strangers, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal City.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Ends Feb. 25.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: (818) 752-9566.

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