Deft handling of difficult story in new Mark Medoff play

In the beginning of Mark Medoff's new play, ``The Hands of Its Enemy,'' playing at the Huntington Hartford Theatre, there is some disagreement about whether the play-within-the-play is a ``nice little revenge piece,'' as its director politely calls it, or a ``big play about domestic violence,'' as its playwright insists. The play they're working on, ``Fury's Gift,'' ends up being both: It starts out as a stiff, melodramatic tale of a woman who shoots her violent husband and goes to prison; it ends up a strong, clear-eyed look at the devastation of incest.

From the beginning of ``Hands,'' the plot throbs with tension. The director of ``Fury's Gift,'' Howard, is a recovering alcoholic faced with directing a play about a wife-beating alcoholic. He has to contend with the inexperienced playwright, Marieta, who obstinately refuses to let anyone change the script. Communicating with her is difficult because she's deaf and hides behind her interpreter. The actress playing the abused wife is Howard's bitter ex-girlfriend. The playwright Marieta's daughter plays the daughter in ``Fury's Gift,'' which makes everyone nervous.

When the actors, with their shrewd eye for falsity, keep butting up against flaws in the play's logic, Howard suspects the playwright is not quite telling the whole truth about this story. He pushes her until she opens up with a torrent of confessions -- and a new play. Watching this play-within-the-play take its legs is one of the remarkable journeys in ``Hands.''

There are others. One is Marieta's coming to grips with what's happened to her and her family, a journey of revelation, understanding and forgiveness. We also see how the creative process of putting on a play forges, out of this initially wary group, a supportive ``family.'' It's also about the power plays and intricacies of communication between the deaf and hearing.

The fact that this is ``a play'' about incest and family violence makes this uncomfortable subject matter easier to watch, but there are naturally some scenes that are very difficult. A real pindropper is a scene where the father first molests the daughter. It's handled tastefully enough (the couch they're sitting on is turned away from the audience) that Medoff evidently feels comfortable about allowing his own teen-age daughter to play Marieta's daughter.

Medoff keeps the play from being unremittingly heavy by working in large dollops of humor. Some of it is zany, left-field stuff; Howard and Edgar try to cheer up a depressed Mel by singing him Fats Domino's ``Blueberry Hill'' -- in Yiddish. One recurring gag that always seem to work: Marieta playing her harmonica theme-song whenever she's upset.

On the other hand, Medoff gives the daughter a tantrum that's embarrassingly contrived. The play is also overwritten at the end. Medoff is clearly trying to tie up all loose ends, and make it a complete catharsis, but the result is a confusing jumble of psychological motives.

He has, however, written another wonderful part for Frelich, one similar to her role in ``Children of a Lesser God,'' a troubled, very independent woman who brooks no condescension (or even an honestly helping hand) because of her deafness. In many ways she's a Kate needing to be tamed by a firm but kind Petruchio. She's a complex, multisided character, a rare thing to find even for female characters that hear; how much more enriching it is to have such a character also be deaf. And Miss Frelich, a powerful actress unafraid to be totally vulnerable, fills out all the corners of this great part. Medoff, again, as in his ``Children of a Lesser God,'' has done us a great service by utilizing his plays to break down stereotypes about the deaf, in a most natural and unpretentious way.

Frelich finds her Petruchio in Richard Dreyfuss, the director of the play-within-the-play. Dreyfuss has been given a part that utilizes his famous frenetic energy, but the whinnying laugh is gone, and he is toned down, more mature. Veronica Cartwright is splendid in the emotionally draining part of the actress. Sharon Madden, as the insecure but cracklingly efficient secretary, is delightful.

``The Hands of Its Enemy'' is sensitively and surely directed by Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Tapor Forum, where the play premi`ered before public demand had it moved to the larger Huntington Hartford Theatre.

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