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Role playing in a time warp 

Gerard Stembridge's funny play, That Was Then, now getting its American premiere at Geva Theatre Center, makes an interesting point about the everlasting battle between the Irish and English: Their roles have been reversed.

Ireland is enjoying an economic and population boom and replacing its agricultural industry with high tech industry and its dependence on English trade with European and US trade. England's economical leadership is losing ground against the Euro; the previously superior-feeling upper class in the UK is showing insecurity about its cultural leadership.

Does the play make these reversals clear? Well, no, but they underlie the farcical behavior that keeps this lively comedy from becoming a nasty social fracas --- or at least from feeling like one.

The comedy is about an Irish couple in Dublin who invite a pretentious English couple to dinner to try to get the wealthy English to lend them money. Noel is an Irish builder trying to pull off a shady deal changing the zoning of some properties and thus raising their values. He is a drunken oaf but underneath a sly operator.

June and Julian, ostensibly a successful English foreign correspondent and his topnotch-accountant wife, have a hidden shady side too: they manipulate investment tricks. A mutual friend therefore suggested that Noel and his wife, May, invite them for dinner.

Six years later June and Julian are bankrupt and are losing all social status, so when they hear that Noel is now a tycoon, and visiting London, they invite him to dinner. Both dinners are disasters but work out, however antagonistically, because these are greedy people with sneaky agendas of their own. This time Noel and his new young wife want to move to London and become nouveau riche aristocrats, and the English want to get away from creditors and snubbing friends and move to Ireland.

In fact, the whole comedy is about role-reversals, and the conflict between "then" and "now"; but it takes a whole act before the interplay begins to gel and clarify the comic reasons for crunching together two time periods, two dinner parties in different countries, and two couples. Then we can appreciate why it all adds up to five people onstage simultaneously acting out two different events and rapidly switching back and forth from guests to hosts, attacking and beseeching at the same time. 

Stembridge said that he wanted to write about Irish themes in "an English play" and was apparently thinking of the clever comedies of Alan Ayckbourn, at least four of which view the same characters in different settings at the same time. But That Was Then also reminds me of the Irish Marie Jones' Stones In His Pockets,which also has actors switching roles in mid-sentence.

That's where all Stembridge's seemingly distracting story-telling tricks work out. Instead of writing act one in sequential time with the English visiting the Irish in what winds up a horrible dinner party, then act two with the Irish visiting the English at an equally disastrous dinner, he has both dinners onstage simultaneously.

Noel switches back and forth between drunken host and teetotaling self-assured guest. Julian goes in a second from arrogant guest to defeated, imploring host. May, the likable, inept Irish hostess, becomes an invisible extra while a new wife plays guest. And June is a haughty guest, then would-be gracious hostess.

The dinners don't get served until act two, when the switches become virtuosic and really funny. And the theme of the changing English-Irish situations as well as their endless underlying antagonism becomes lucid. And maybe the audience begins to generally understand what in hell is actually happening onstage.

A fine cast seems to have fun with all this carrying-on. Guy Bannerman somehow makes the vulgar Irish Noel actually likable. And his instant switches from cold, secure, articulate wealthy man to hotheaded, snarling drunk are bravura comic displays. I'd like Remi Sandri to be less appealing as the snooty visitor to better contrast with his whining jellyfish after Julian's fortunes reverse; but his two personas are certainly clearly defined. Sandri's outrageous slapstick sufferings (knocking over or spilling the meal he tries to serve, or wearing it on his shirt, stumbling and sliding under the table, then banging his head on it) are the play's most effective identification as a farce.

Aileen Quinn as Noel's very young second wife is bright and entertaining in an underwritten role. As Noel's first wife May, Peggy Cosgrove is as amusing as her limited role permits and surprisingly warm and lovable. Megan Byrne's June is either uninventive or directed to be too singly sneering in her haughty responses to everyone but her husband. Her variety was in her English accent in the first act.

Given the almost excessive cleverness of the script, director Mark Cuddy brought both lively physical comedy and pacing, and also an overall clarity of movement and behavior that I thought very impressive. Perhaps the dramatic set-up requires that sets, costumes, and lighting are ingeniously initially designed but hardly develop in any way once the play begins and the people dress for dinner. The audience seemed to be amused throughout, whether they got all the in-jokes or not. Not everyone may have noticed, for instance, that the women's relative ages are in their names: May, June, April.

That Was Then by Gerard Stembridge, directed by Mark Cuddy, plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through February 6 at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard. Tickets $13.50 to $48.50. Call 232-4382,

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