On stage: savage indignation. `Big Time' falls short of full-bodied drama

Big Time: Scenes From a Service Economy Play by Keith Reddin. Directed by Steven Schachter. The 1988 American Theater Exchange is concluding with two productions by the American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge, Mass. Both are local premi`eres. The Robert Brustein version of Luigi Pirandello's ``Six Characters in Search of an Author'' (reviewed previously) has been joined in repertory at the Joyce Theater by Keith Reddin's scathing ``Big Time: Scenes From a Service Economy.''

The author of such previous satires as ``Rum and Coke'' and ``The Highest Standard of Living,'' Mr. Reddin here aims his savage indignation at the mammon marathon that corrupts the individual and dehumanizes even the closest relationships. Paul (William Converse-Roberts), the antihero, is a commercial whiz kid whose multimillion-dollar electronic transfers have made him a comer in the international banking world.

Always on the go and fashionably dressed to kill, Paul treats his live-in girlfriend, Fran (Cherry Jones), with a callousness that corrodes even his marriage proposal. Fran is also having an affair with Paul's friend Peter (Peter Crombie), who turns from the grim business of covering small wars to the providing of slick magazine schlock. In this avaricious world, everything can be bought and sold if the price is right.

Paul gets briefly into trouble when one of his Mideast deals goes sour and he is briefly held hostage by Islamic extremists in the home of wheeler-dealer Hassan (Harry S. Murphy). Not to worry. By Mr. Reddin's deft sleight of hand, the indomitable yuppie is soon back in the USA holding a White House job near enough to the Oval Office to permit an occasional nod of presidential recognition. As he says to Peter, ``We're both on track - choo, choo, choo.'' Mr. Reddin takes a mordant view of these demoniacally driven fellow travelers.

Running scarcely more than 70 minutes, ``Big Time'' resembles a prolonged sketch rather than a full-bodied play. Under Steven Schachter's direction, the sharply drawn principal characters are portrayed by an ensemble of actors who do full justice to the author's crisp, staccato dialogue. This is particularly true of Mr. Converse-Roberts as the super-egoist Paul, and Mr. Crombie as the slightly more laid-back Peter. Miss Jones wins a modicum of sympathy as Fran, a successful photographic layout artist who begins to wonder where liberation has taken - and left - her.

The male contingent of Mr. Reddin's savvy animated cartoon is completed by Mr. Murphy's blandly pragmatic Hassan and Thomas Derrah's glib corporate hatchet man, assigned to tell Paul he is fired. As the overachiever's boss, Sandra Shipley not only satirizes the macho female executive but proves equal to the comic flights of a soap-opera saga about her accident-prone family.

``Big Time'' may well be the most serious of the Reddin plays so far. With all his cleverness, one wishes that this talented young dramatist would venture beyond the merely antiseptic to deal in deeper emotional and philosophical terms with the figures of his satirist's fancy. The American Repertory Theatre production has been designed `a la mode by Bill Clarke (sets), Ellen McCartney (costumes), and Thom Palm (lighting). ``Big Time'' gives its final Joyce Theater performance July 30.

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