First Nighter: Two Superlative Thornton Wilder One-Acts in "A Wilder Christmas," "Real Men: The Musical" Teases the Fellas Entertainingly, Jerry Mayer's "2 Across" Has Andrea McArdle, Kip Gilman Meeting Cute

Perhaps Thornton Wilder's chief glory is his belief in and conviction about the celestial mundane.
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Perhaps Thornton Wilder's chief glory is his belief in and conviction about the celestial mundane. It's certainly the foundation on which he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, where the daily life of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire is depicted over a few early 20th-century decades, but he'd already been tripping fantastically along those lines in earlier one-acters.

Two -- surely two of the most accomplished and enduring -- are "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha," which luckily for theatergoers are now the objects of fine revivals by director Dan Wackerman's Peccadillo Theater Company at the Theatre at St. Clement's. The event is called A Wilder Christmas.

Sometimes overlooked when the top previous-century playwrights are listed, Wilder absolutely shouldn't be. His cheerful playing with theater form is inextricable from the outstanding writing of the period. In "The Long Christmas Dinner," the Bayard family gathers for their annual turkey, but as they convene over the course of 75 years or so, new members regularly enter as aging members leave.

On Harry Feiner's simple set a table set with gleaming tableware is the centerpiece. It's flanked by an arched trellis capped with spring flowers at stage right and a matching arched trellis capped with bare branches at stage left. No need to explain by which trellis the new Bayards arrive and by which trellis they depart.

The laughter and tears common to Everyfamily are common to the Bayards. Wilder sees to it that, while specific ups and down occur -- healthy children mature, a child lost in infancy doesn't, a son has success in business, a son is killed in World War I, a spinster daughter leaves home, another son deserts out of boredom -- the universal is also celebrated.

In "Pullman Car Hiawatha" travelers, again of universal stripe, are on a journey that Wilder undoubtedly intends to be symbolic as well as real. Curiously, they pass through another Grover's Corners, this one in Ohio. Narrating their progress is a stage manager (Michael Sean McGuinness), who foreshadows Our Town. Also aboard is a young woman (Anna Marie Sell), who dies and, on being led to heaven by an archangel (Lamar Giles), bids goodbye to the world very much as Our Town's Emily does.

Both plays are beauties and are acted accordingly by Wackerman's troupe. The pieces may not be performed as rarely as the Peccadillo info suggests, but they're the sorts of superior entries that never grow stale in the viewing. By the way, be warned that Wackerman fiddles with some of the roles so that audience participation arises
With The Real Men: The Musical, the title alone may cause incipient stomach grumbling, but don't be discouraged. Stephen G. Anthony, Paul Louis and Nick Santa Maria, who perform in it at New World Stages (the latter two wrote the songs that make it up), are so off-the-cuff engaging that they completely avoid the macho posturing that could infect this sort of endeavor.

Actually, they spend much of the 90 minutes sending up macho-male proclivities. They divide their amiable melodies and lyrics into various categories, returning several times to a song called "Men Are the Happier Gender." During that one, they list stereotypical masculine attributes. It would be a pleasure to report they're often in the wrong about the clichés of male foolishness, but they aren't.

Yes, there are predictable targets. There's one ditty that gets around to penis size and another in which one of them arrives on stage in a gigantic penis (the number is dubbed "I Used to Have a Penis"), but nothing along those standard male-baiting targets crosses the line from amusing to gross-out.

For anyone old enough to remember naughty-song entertainers Rusty Warren or Belle Barth, Anthony, Louis and Santa Maria may seem like male equivalents. Those ladies, however, were more stationary, whereas the three Real Men men caper in Ellis Tillman's colorful costumes and also use a series of cute puppets made and designed by Tillman and Louis.

There's plenty of talent on the stage, and that includes conductor-keyboardist Martin Landry and bassist Brian Radock. More than that, Anthony, Louis and Santa Maria, without appearing to do so, prove something by revue's end that they may or may not have set out to prove: by their very examples, they represent what honest-to-goodness real men really are.
Although it's predictable no later than from its first few seconds, Jerry Mayer's 2 Across, at St. Luke's (check schedule), still manages to hold attention in a gently appealing manner.

Janet (Andrea McArdle) and Josh (Kip Gilman) meet cute in a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) car at 4 a. m. She's returning from a visit with a son who's just quit school to join the marines; he's got a temp job at the airport. They're both doing the same crossword puzzle, which provides him with an opening gambit.

Janet -- they don't actually exchange names for some time -- isn't interested in Josh, who's initially something of an aggressive nuisance. (Aren't all nuisances aggressive?) Eventually, however -- as everyone in the audience knows will transpire -- Janet and Josh find common ground. Then -- as everyone in the audience knows will occur -- they lose the common ground and find it again and so on and so forth.

It's in the way Mayer brings them together and then distances them, et cetera, that keeps the interest. Josh is actually a likable fellow and hasn't that much more on his mind than finding a good woman, whereas Janet is worried about her boy. Janet does refer to a husband, and Josh does mention a wife, but theater-wise ticket buyers may grow suspicious about relationships that won't be described any further here.

Invaluably helping Mayer to keep the new acquaintances interesting are McArdle and Gilman. If they weren't up to the task, the playwright would be in trouble. McArdle skillfully blends testiness, worry and romantic wonder, and Gilman brings nice-guy attractiveness in large measure. Oddly enough, when you close your eyes as he's speaking, you hear Alan Alda. Also credit director Evelyn Rudie for finding infinite ways to keep them on the move in the tiny subway-car space designed by Scott Heineman.

Do Janet and Josh get together by the time they reach the end of the BART line? Shame on you for having to ask. But even then McArdle and Gilman are not finished. They extend the curtain call with a rendition of "You Made Me Love You." Likely to go through life as "the original Annie," McArdle still has those vocal powers to offer.

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