After 64 Tries, Claudia Shear Finds Her Calling in a Monologue

Two Off-Broadway attractions have one thing in common: frustration

BLOWN SIDEWAYS THROUGH LIFE One-woman show conceived and written by Claudia Shear. At the Cherry Lane Theatre indefinitely. BOOTH Play by Austin Pendleton. At the Theatre at Saint Peter's Church through Feb. 13.

THE 65th time was a charm. In her autobiographical monologue ``Blown Sideways Through Life,'' Brooklyn-born Claudia Shear claims to have had 64 jobs in her lifetime. But this show, which recently transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre after a highly acclaimed sold-out engagement at the New York Theatre Workshop, is likely to keep her employed for a long time to come.

Shear came out of nowhere, but she has certainly not been idle. Among the jobs she describes in her breezy tour de force are real-estate saleswoman, waitress, movie extra in Italian films, and phone receptionist at a brothel. Her account is more impressionistic than chronological, and she infuses her ironic observations with wit and energy.

Her humor is self-deprecating, yet at the same time assertive. One of her missions seems to be to remind us that every person we encounter, from salespeople to one's employees, are individuals with thoughts and feelings. In a city such as New York, this is a valuable and often forgotten lesson.

Shear also offers a moving perspective on the prejudices faced by overweight people (she explains that she once weighed more than 200 pounds). Judging from the joyful dance with which she ends the evening, it is clear that Shear is comfortable with her body the way it is. Onstage she is a human dynamo, spending the hour in perpetual motion.

``Blown Sideways Through Life'' (a great title) may imply an existence marked by chaos and confusion, but Claudia Shear makes the case that intelligence and humor can give a sense of meaning in the world. By the process of rendering her search for identity into theatrical terms, she has discovered her calling.

Playwright Austin Pendleton proclaimed that he has worked on the script for ``Booth'' for some 33 years. That's a long time to fine-tune a play, maybe too long, because this saga about 19th-century actor Junius Brutus Booth, who fathered legendary actor Edwin Booth and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, is overlong and unfocused. But it does offer Frank Langella his most scenery-shredding role since Dracula.

The play - versions of which were performed at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival and the Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn. - veers wildly in tone from melodrama to comedy to psychological drama as it presents the conflicts between Junius and son Edwin. The son joins his father on the road to learn the craft of acting, but both soon realize that Junius's style of acting has become outdated. Junius's uncontrolled behavior (he is an alcoholic and frequently abusive to audiences) has caught up with him; he is destined to be surpassed by his son.

Complicating matters is Junius's bizarre personal life - Edwin and John are his sons by his long-suffering mistress Mary Ann (Frances Conroy), but he also has a wife and child in England. In the final act, Edwin manipulates things so that a confrontation results between the two women.

``Booth'' is most effective when it concentrates on the clashes between the two generations of thespians, even if it does sometimes seem similar to David Mamet's ``A Life in the Theatre.'' Playwright Pendleton falters when he attempts to portray Junius Booth as some grand Shakespearean tragic figure (there is much made of Richard III's family relations). In the scenes detailing Junius's attempts to impart his craft, Langella reaches the heights of comic frustration. His entire performance, almost too large for the tiny St. Peter's Church stage, is wonderfully charismatic and theatrical. The chief benefit of Pendleton's long gestation period is the matchup of Langella to this part.

Solid support is provided by the supporting cast, especially Paul Schmidt and Joyce Ebert as two of Booth's stolid acting companions. Alexander Enberg has little to do as young Johnny (John Wilkes), but he does suggest his character's inner turmoil. As Edwin, Garret Dillahunt is thoroughly impressive. Director David Schweizer has a difficult time coping with the work's marked shifts in tone. ``Booth'' was apparently first conceived as a musical, and one can get a glimmer of that in the play's oversized emotions - every part seems to be bursting at the seams.

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