Romantic comedy from a sensitive new playwright; The Woolgatherer, Comedy by William Mastrosimone. Directed by John Bettenbender.

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In his professional debut as a playwright, William Mastrosimone proves that there is still something to be said on the subject of the aggressively macho male vs. the timorously withdrawn female. "The Woolgatherer," the new romantic comedy at the Circle Repertory Theater, says it with sensitivity, eloquence, and humor.

Rose (Patricia Wettig) is one of those irresistibly appealing heroines whose pathos rests on the fact that she doesn't know she is pathetic. Distressed, yes , and even disturbed. But gallant. Away from her candy counter in a Philadelphia Woolworth's, she lives an existence that is part fantasy and part quite literal fact. She nurtures plants that refuse to survive. The one window of her "efficiency apartment" is boarded up.

Rose haunts the local natural history museum and dreams of adventurous travel. Yet the simplest excursion is quite beyond her. She has recently been shattered by the spectacle of rock-pelting youths killing some cranes in a local park. Rose is naive, simple, and incorrigibly hopeful.

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Into the bleak little flat swaggers Cliff (Peter Weller), the almost mythical figure of contemporary American legend, the long-haul truck driver. Cliff is the epitome of the deadpan kidder. Rose complains that he makes a joke of everything. It scarcely matters, since most of his humor goes over her head. His occasional outbursts of cursing shock her. Drawn as they are to each other, Rose's wariness leads to Cliff's baffled departure. ("I just don't believe somebody like you," he tells her.)

Since this is a two-character play, the separation merely spans the intermission. In the second act, Mr. Mastrosimone comes to grips with the deeper and more troubling dynamics of his comic romance and also to its larger relevancies. At heart, "The Woolgatherer" is dealing with a terror of mortality and the fragility of existence -- whether for the dinosaurs of the Ice Age, or a flock of innocent water birds, or the seemingly extrovert truck driver and the hauntingly strange girl he had mistakenly regarded as just one more easy pickup.

The playwright has left some loose ends to be pondered. But he has developed a relationship that is consistently plausible and frequently touching. The title, incidentally, bears literal as well as metaphorical connotations. But they should be left for the play itself to reveal.

"The Woolgatherer" takes risks. But because of the extraordinary insight with which it is acted under John Bettenbender's direction, the risk-taking pays off in theatrical reward. Miss Wettig's Rose never indulges in self-pity and Mr. Weller avoids exploiting his evident actor's charm. The production is well designed by Karl Eigsti (scenery), Joan E. Weiss (costumes), and Dennis Parichy (lighting). As for Mr. Mastrosimone, he is a fresh voice who will be heard from again.

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