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Third time is not a charm 

I was sure that the Shelagh Stephenson was Irish, but she isn't. She was born in Northumberland, where her play Ancient Lightstakes place. That may be significant, since an Irish novelist in the play turns out to be English, from Hull, a port city that I think is in Northumberland. Indeed, almost all the characters in Ancient Lights are not what they seem; and neither, one of them discovers, is the title.

            This is the third play by Stephenson which Shipping Dock Theatre has produced in a solid production with some of Rochester's best actors. I admired the first, The Memory of Water, extravagantly, and liked Shipping Dock's second, An Experiment With An Air Pump. But for all its complexities, this one disappoints.

            Possibly, John R. Jaeger's straightforward direction might have lifted the comedy a bit had he gone for more lively comic quirks, but I think the problem is the script. At the end, the three characters who are old friends relax together while smoking a joint, and create a closing scene with more charm and fun. I think that release would have been undercut had Jaeger made them too foolish earlier, since the comedy comes from their stereotypical failings.

            A strong cast makes these celebrity types as appealing as the script allows. Sammy Urzetta plays sexy movie star Tom Cavallero. Tom has a romantic view of England, where he is returning to visit old college chums, including Bea, a public relations whiz, who is helping him handle a scandal over seducing an underage girl in the United States. He remembers the mystical sign, "Ancient Lights," on an English building, but later finds that it actually has a wholly mundane meaning.

            Also visiting Bea for Christmas, their other college friend, Kitty, reports bravely on danger spots for TV news. But, in fact, she's too easily upset and won't do that anymore. Alternately furious and lachrymose, Kitty is never calm, but Virginia Flavin somehow makes her likable.

            Patricia Lewis makes Bea glamorous and wryly observant. Bea is more tolerant toward her friends' deceptions than toward her lover's pretenses. But she and Tad (Terrance Brennan) are perhaps the most honestly affectionate people in the play, and they have a nice rapport as the embattled lovers.

            Completing the cast are Ruth Hollinger as Bea's entirely self-involved precocious daughter, Joni, and Maureen Mines as Tom's adoring companion, Iona. These two characters, of course, have their own identity-confusions also. With a camera apparently implanted against one eye, Iona drives the others mad by endlessly pointing it at them, making, she says, a documentary about Tom.

            Unfortunately, though these willful folks insist that they don't want a camera on them in private moments, not one smashes it into intrusive Iona's face. Mines is an actress capable of considerable charm, but this character is hopelessly annoying.

            Ultimately, all these gags about successful but misunderstood and unhappy folks who are not really what they seem do not let us know them or like them enough to care about them --- much less to worry about the questions they raise about the nature of identity.

            Tom, who has a funny riff about having tried every imaginable self-help and outside-help fad, is too messy in his mixed motives to be taken seriously. And I fear that so is the play.

            The hokey story that Tad tells about a man horrified at seeing a doppelganger image of himself, comes back in Tom's seeing himself in Iona's film and freaking out. Then damned if the three friends don't solemnly end the play by telling Tad's story all over again. It was his own self what he saw, you see! But, as Milt Gross once wisely said, "Actual, it didn't really was."

Ancient Lights: A Comedyby Shelagh Stephenson, directed by John R. Jaeger, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre, Visual Studies Auditorium, 31 Prince Street, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 8. Tix: $12 to $22. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org.

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