Dividing Lines

The Independent Eye, Old City Stage Works, 115 Arch St., through Dec. 3, 925-2838.

Bread, wine and seltzer are served during the intermission of Dividing Lines, a series of scenes and sketches by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller at The Independent Eye. But to get to it, the audience has to cross over into the stage area through a row of bright orange traffic cones.

Dividing Lines is about crossing boundaries, or failing to -- barriers of cultural difference, of self-willed isolation, of personal defenses. In the very first sketch of the evening, the cast of six plays a game of musical chairs, marking each stage of exclusion with aggressiveness, hostility, defensiveness, liberal apologies and tirades about rejection. And in another, passersby in the street try to deal with a man standing impassively at attention inside a square that he has marked out in masking tape on the pavement, and aren't satisfied until they eject him from his square and crowd into it themselves.

If this sounds schematic and reductive, it is. For in many of these sketches, the writing betrays its origins in several years of The Independent Eye residencies in colleges and high schools; and the actors are all members of the Eye's new "genesis ensemble," formed to develop material of this sort.

Sketches of the "musical chairs" ilk (e.g., the closing piece of the evening, which uses the metaphor of ethnic foods to satirize conformity and to celebrate difference) are simple and gimmicky. Others (about the friend who felt too insulted to show up at her reunion of high school friends; or three short scenes tracing three children through high school and adult life forming clubs that systematically exclude one of the three) all make their psychotherapeutic point well enough about friendship and communities. And still others (a sketch about telephone solicitors, and another about a stenographer recording a murderer's confession) sneak up on you with the rather simple points they make about communities of exploitation and unrecognized kinships.

Much more successful is the piece that closes the first half of the program, "Party Time." Put aside the gimmick (that God lives with her husband in a two-room walk-up at 48th and Market and watches the lives of her neighbors on her TV set), and what you see is a series of snapshots, the actors grouping and regrouping to show us brief glimpses of various couples' lives of conflict and quiet desperation.

Here, as in Bishop and Fuller's set of 90-second radio sketches for NPR, Family Snapshots, the playwrights have found their form: bright, searing, insightful, devastating hit-and-run miniatures. (All the Family Snapshot sketches are available on cassette, and are well worth the $12.)

But the longer pieces still smell of the group-therapy workshop. And the shorter, more abstract ones would be less glaringly schematic if, like The Independent Eye's delightful Rash Acts playlets, they had employed hand-held puppet heads on tiny puppet-show-sized stages instead of flesh-and-blood actors.

(This, I must add, is a reflection on the writing, and not on the ensemble of able actors: J. J. Van Name, Sonja Robson, Joy Keys, Timothy Jackson, Christopher Kendra, and Kevin Augustine.)

-- Cary M. Mazer