If you don't warm to the play, maybe you'll like the buffet

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Tamara Play by John Krizanc. Directed by Richard Rose.

``Tamara,'' at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, explores the extremes of stunt playmaking.

A mixture of camp and kitsch, this ``living movie'' transforms 10 rooms and three floors of the 19th-century New York City landmark building into a simulation of the villa occupied by Italian poet-patriot Gabriele d'Annunzio in 1927.

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While Fascist-driven political passions rage without, carnal passions rule within as d'Annunzio (Frederick Rolf) awaits the arrival of Tamara de Lempicka (Sara Botsford), the beautiful Polish artist who is to paint his portrait and whom he is determined to add to his conquests.

Corny as the plot proves to be, it is not the half of ``Tamara.'' As conceived by playwright John Krizanc and staged by Richard Rose, the melodrama brings the audience into direct and intimate contact with the sleazy characters.

Presented with ``passports'' as they enter the armory, the 160 spectators are marshaled into formations by a too genial major domo (Leland Murray) and a sinister fascist cop (August Schellenberg). Thereafter, the visitors are free to follow the character (or characters) of their choice along the halls, up and down the stairs, and into the rooms where the actions occur. Whether, at the end of a long evening, they will be any the wiser about whodunit, or why, is another matter.

Fringe benefits of their excursion into Italianate decadence include pre-performance canap'es and drinks, an ``intermezzo'' buffet, and post-performance cr`eme br^ul'ee (all catered by posh Le Cirque). At ticket prices ranging from $85 to $135, perhaps it's all worth it.

Dramatically speaking, ``Tamara'' is a movable feast - with the actors striding along at a fast clip and the tourists keeping pace as best they are able.

Come to think of it, ``Tamara'' rather resembles one of those misguided sightseeing tours at the end of which nothing is more welcome than the waiting bus. (The armory amenities include plenty of well-distributed settees.)

For some excursionists, standing face to face with a declaiming actor will provide enough of a novelty to justify the cost and the physical demands of the occasion.

The players, who keep their theatrical distance even in these intimate circumstances, include Lally Cadeau as d'Annunzio's ex-mistress, Cynthia Dale as a ditsy ballerina, Roma Downey as a light-fingered maid, Patrick Horgan as a dilettante composer, Marilyn Lighthouse as the master's domestic confidante and organizer, and Jack Wetherall as the mysterious chauffeur who possesses one of the several handguns on the premises.

Whatever its shortcomings as drama, ``Tamara'' is something of a triumph of d'ecor and logistics. Robert Checchi has done a masterly job of transforming parts of the vast armory into the semblance of a villa, replete with art objects, artifacts, and well-stocked bookshelves. Director Richard Rose has honored the hokum with a performance which, if nothing else, distracts.

The unsolved mystery of the entertainment may be why it has been a hit in Toronto and Los Angeles and is apparently doing a brisk business on Park Avenue.

Beyond the novelty and the refreshments, perhaps it appeals to the Peeping Tom instincts of an age when supermarket tabloids and slick gossip magazines have made a major industry out of publicizing other people's scandals.

Ironic footnote: Sections of the Seventh Regiment Armory also serve as a shelter for the homeless.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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