When boardroom and terror collide

Corporate ethics collide with history in "The Good Ship Manhattan," receiving its world premiere at 2100 Square Feet. Paul Mullin's dramedy contrasts boardroom ruthlessness with larger global terrors.

It begins almost ritually on Gary Smoot's striking abstraction of a high-rise, with hanging strings for walls. As Tim Labor's sound effects provide urban atmosphere, each character delivers dialogue destined to reappear at essential moments.

The protagonist is ex-schoolteacher Richard (Patrick Tuttle), a glibly misanthropic temporary worker on Wall Street. Opposite him is boss Greg (Bart Tangredi), a garrulous hotshot with a penchant for correct stapling technique. Greg wants Richard to consider a CPA career; Richard would sooner staple his nose.

Their faintly ominous banter forms the foundation of Mullin's freewheeling plot. Complications come from two women -- deceptively benign colleague Michelle (Michelle Noh) and verse-spouting bartender Ursula (Christy O'Keefe) -- and then intermission brings Sept. 11.

Director William Salyers deftly maneuvers his forces, with Michael Resnick's lighting invaluable. So are the proficient actors. Tuttle morphs Brendan Fraser and Chris Elliott, and Tangredi's bluffness conceals notable depth. O'Keefe is wry, then wrenching, and Noh almost steals the show.

Mullin's post-Mamet script is promising but erratic. There is enough thematic material for three plays. The relationships are inconsistently drawn, too often substituting self-delighting wit and baldly exposed metaphor for character insight.

When these divergent elements click, as in the Act 2 scene merging airborne and earthbound factions, "Manhattan" ignites. Certainly, there is incipient quality here, but it requires further excavation.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Good Ship Manhattan," 2100 Square Feet Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 5. Mature audiences. $15. (323) 957-4312. Running time: 2 hours.

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