`Tapman': Blues singer with a big ego. Also `Cave Life' - murky mock comedy that falters

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Tapman Play by Karen Jones-Meadows. Directed by Samuel P. Barton. Starring Moses Gunn. ``Tapman,'' at the Hudson Guild Theatre, relies heavily on Moses Gunn's imposing presence and commanding authority as an aging blues singer facing assorted crises. Revered by his faithful back-up musicians, the legendary Tapman has shaken them seriously by his recent behavior. Not only has he refused to allow electronic instruments into their combo and to permit them to work independently. His heavy drinking just prior to performances has immobilized Tapman and cost the group several dates.

Playwright Karen Jones-Meadows mingles Tapman's professional difficulties with a tense domestic situation involving daughter Sherry (Seret Scott) and new young wife Thelma (Kim Hamilton). The women come amicably to terms in the course of the play. On the performing side, Tapman agrees to star in a Houston tribute concert, thus healing the breach with his musicians but creating an unexpected rift with Thelma. ``Tapman'' ends inconclusively on the night of the tribute as its unpredictable hero takes things into his own hands - whether for good or ill remains problematic.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gunn is responding resourcefully to the playwright's compilation of sketchy scenes to create a balanced yet sympathetic portrait of an artist whose tremendous ego threatens both himself and those around him. As a composer-performer, Tapman rose to popular heights without ever having made a recording. For him, the applause of the crowds and accompanying commercial success were enough. How much of his career can now be salvaged is the unanswered question at a turning point between satisfying past and uncertain future.

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Mr. Gunn reflects the light as well as the dark aspects of the character, whether squabbling with Sherry, playing the ardent husband with Thelma, initiating grandson Keith (Merlin Santana) into the rites of pipe smoking, or giving his imploring musicians the silent treatment. The good supporting cast, directed by Samuel P. Barton, includes Dean Irby, Helmar Augustus Cooper, John P. Rice, and composer-guitarist Guy Davis, who provides bluesy musical bridges between scenes. ``Tapman,'' which was designed by Paul Wonsek (lighting) and Marianne Powell-Parker (costumes), is presently scheduled to run until the end of March.

Cave Life Play by David Steven Rappaport. Directed by Paul Lazarus.

``Cave Life,'' David Steven Rappaport's disordered black comedy, populates the Circle Repertory Company stage with assorted cases of mental disturbance. Charleston (Robin Bartlett), a lecturer at the American Museum of Natural History, imagines she is being pursued by a Neanderthal man (Bruce McCarty) from a habitat display. Her ditzy mother (Jo Henderson), a dancing teacher, occupies a fantasy world symbolized by Fred Astaire. Charleston's unfaithful husband (Mark Blum) shares custody with his former wife of their brain-damaged son (Jeffrey Kearney). The cast directed by Paul Lazarus strives valiantly to shed some light on this brief, murky mock-comedy. But the task is hopeless.

(Through March 6.)

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