Prizewinning domestic drama earns a New York production

Three Ways Home Play by Casey Kurtti. Directed by Chris Silva. Starring Mary McDonnell, S. Epatha Merkerson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner. The progress of an unlikely friendship between a streetwise Harlem mother and a yuppie volunteer social worker provides the emotional dynamic and appeal of ``Three Ways Home,'' Casey Kurtti's candid comedy drama at the Astor Place Theatre. Miss Kurtti relies mostly on extended monologues to delineate her three characters and unfold the urban adventure into which she plunges them. Meanwhile, the author comments wryly on everything from bureaucracy to love life in the '80s.

Sharon (Mary McDonnell), a successful and attractive computer animator, is the first to take the stage. She confides a few basic personal facts and confesses to the vague guilt feelings that prompted her to enroll in a municipal program to help battered wives and children. Her first client is the fiercely self-possessed Dawn (S. Epatha Merkerson), whose contempt for the would-be do-gooder is scathing and profane.

Whatever battering she may have received from her disappeared husband and live-in boyfriend, Dawn seems more than capable of fending for herself and her children. Dawn simultaneously derides Sharon and cons her into paying an overdue electric bill. Yet the two women come gradually to understand, respect, and like each other.

Dawn is especially partial to son Frankie (Malcolm-Jamal Warner of TV's ``The Cosby Show''), a troubled 16-year-old hustler and entrepreneur. Frankie's occasional brushes with the police prove less emotionally damaging than his fantasizing obsession with comic book characters.

Kurtti's writing is crisp, humorous, sometimes poignant, and always explicit. Her characters are sharply drawn and are acted accordingly, under Chris Silva's direction.

The play suffers somewhat from its overworked direct-address device and from a certain predictability. Nevertheless, ``Three Ways Home,'' which was developed at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, substantiates its selection as a finalist in this year's Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for women dramatists.

The admirable Astor Place production was designed by Donald Eastman (tenement-surrounded setting), Anne Militello (lighting), and April Curtis (costumes).

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