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A light courting, in and out of character

Written by Jeffrey Sweet. Directed by Sandy Shinner. 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78th St., Manhattan. Through March 26. Tickets are $15. Call 212-868-4444. Seen Sunday.

'Bluff' (Photo by Luke MacCloskey)

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March 8, 2006

The medium is the message in Jeffrey Sweet's beguiling but unsettling romantic comedy "Bluff." In telling a tale of fragile, improvised human connections, the play uses a loose-fitting form that has the actors moving in and out of scenes to narrate and stage-manage their own sides of the story.

On paper, this may sound like a stagy gimmick, but in the expert hands of director Sandy Shinner and her appealing six-member cast, Sweet's ruse serves as a sly reminder that our most intimate relationships, like the conventions of the theater, rely on implicit social contracts that have become frayed and complicated.

Five Towns College
Consider Emily (Sarah Yorra), a tall, curly-haired charity fundraiser with a glittering smile who falls for Neal (Ean Sheehy), a gangly, sensitive lawyer, after they meet cute rescuing a gay-bashing victim (Luke MacCloskey). Emily's bright surface, it turns out, gets much of its gleam from her white-hot anger at her stepfather, Gene (Bill Tatum). A glad-handing salesman with a knack for effrontery and terrible taste in ties, Gene tends to Emily's alcoholic mother (Kristine Niven) with what seems to Emily like unloving brusqueness or worse.

There's more to the conflict, though, and Neal soon discovers he can't keep up with the needling gamesmanship between daughter and stepfather. As much as he hates to admit it, Neal has a haunting kinship with Gene: Both men have been initially welcomed into the hearts of disappointed women.

For a play with an essentially despairing view of love in an age of no-fault divorce and casual hook-ups, "Bluff" often has a teasing, frothy feel. That's partly due to Sweet's cunning ear for dialogue; he has a knack for burying stinging repartee under rambling tangents, as when Gene rails against the stereotyping of dentists or recounts an odd fiasco on a cruise ship. Emily and Neal's breezy courtship also has a wary, sexy competitive edge that makes their cooling-off period heartbreakingly credible.

The aforementioned theatrical shuffling burnishes the 80-minute play's glow of delight. Actors interrupt scenes to dispute each other's rendition of events or offer self-reflexive asides. "That's it for this character," actress Michelle Best tartly informs us about her small part as a pick-up; later, after assaying a similarly incidental role, she stops the show cold to inform us she's a more versatile performer than we've had the chance to see.

None of this would come off if the actors weren't so light on their feet. Yorra and Sheehy have a generous and confident give-and-take, and Tatum is a joyfully unrepentant jerk. "Bluff" works so well because Sweet has found a fresh way to make these characters live onstage - a way that bracingly demonstrates how close they live to us.

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