`Lucky Spot': offbeat comedy by Beth Henley

The Lucky Spot Play by Beth Henley. Directed by Stephen Tobolowsky ``The Lucky Spot,'' at the Manhattan Theatre Club, celebrates Christmas, 1934, with an assortment of waifs, strays, misfits, and losers. With its hard-edged violence and soft-edged sentiments, Beth Henley's latest dark comedy concerns the efforts of compulsive gambler Reed Hooker (Ray Barker) to launch ``the first taxi-dance hall in an isolated rural area,'' namely Pigeon, La. The project is effectively sabotaged by the return home from prison of Reed's wife, Sue Jack (Amy Madigan), the toughest woman in town, who has been serving a term for attempted murder.

The plot pursues a boisterous course as the playwright considers the plights of several off-center characters with blighted dreams. Good-natured handyman Turnip (Alan Ruck) is plagued with self-doubt. Taxi-dancer Lacey (Belita Moreno) yearns for ``fame, wealth, and adoration'' but finds herself ``poor, broke,'' and unliked. Most wistful of the dreamers is Cassidy Smith (Mary Stuart Masterson), the simple-minded 15-year-old whom Reed has won in a poker game, made pregnant, and promised to marry.

``The Lucky Spot'' mingles a kind of compassionate comedy with periodic violence. Reed comes to blows with villainous creditor Whitt Carmichael (Lanny Flaherty), and there is a bruising encounter between the Hookers - both staged with expert help from fight director B.H. Barry. Bursts of shotgun and pistol fire, though not fatal, leave their shattering marks on the Lucky Spot, particularly Reed's cherished juke box, a gaudy feature of John Lee Beatty's cheerful setting (lighted by Dennis Parichy).

Miss Henley crowns the play's troubled season of goodwill with a scene of mutual forgiveness that seems more indulgent than believable.

But the actors, including John Wylie as the Lucky Spot's sole and elderly customer, respond intrepidly to the needs and ways of this offbeat human comedy. As she attested in the prize-winning ``Crimes of the Heart,'' those who commit such crimes aren't necessarily criminals at heart.

If ``The Lucky Spot'' states the case less persuasively, it isn't for want of conviction on the part of the cast, astutely directed by Stephen Tobolowsky.

Jennifer von Mayrhauser's depression-era costumes include a couple of irresistible hats for Cassidy and enough brave finery to dress up the Lucky Spot's dauntless opening night. The play runs through May 17.

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