Punch & Judy Get Divorced

American Music Theater Festival, Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey Place, through May 26, 893-1570.

Act One of Punch & Judy Get Divorced gives you a very bad idea about what Act Two is really about. Then again, the title, Punch & Judy Get Divorced, gives you a very bad idea about what Act Two is really about. And Act Two is where the only real substance of the piece resides.

Act One does, unfortunately, live up to the title. Punch (Benjamin Evett) and Judy (Gail Grate) temporarily swallow their mutual resentments and go to the theater to see Punch (James Judy) and Judy (Lola Pashalinski). Punch and Judy (the actor-puppets) fight. Punch and Judy (watching) fight. Judy and Judy change character and now represent Polly and Polly, the homewreckers with whom a Punch will occasionally stray from his marriage, and whom he will occasionally marry (at which point she, too, becomes a Judy). Punch and Judy's dog (Lisa D. White) fights with the Devil's dog (Scott Cunningham) to the soundtrack of a Loony Tunes cartoon. The Devil (Charles Levin) explains it all: "Judy's a shrew because Punch is a bastard. But Punch is a bastard because Judy's a shrew. But Judy's a shrew because..."

David Gordon -- who directed, choreographed, wrote the script with his son Ain Gordon, wrote the lyrics with Ain Gordon and Arnold Weinstein, and designed the set (with David P. Gordon [no relation]) -- has expanded what was a short ballet for Mikhail Baryshnikov's company into an hour of heads popping in and out of puppet booths and people hitting each other over the head with salamis and brooms, singing a random series of tangos and blues and ballads composed by Edward Barnes. This Punch-and-Judy stuff is hard to watch when it's a five-minute puppet show. As an hour-long generalization about marriage, it's simply impossible: Daffy Duck meets August Strindberg.

Act Two, thank God, is different. At the center is Judy Baby, played by Alice Playten, a Broadway veteran from several decades ago who has remained preternaturally childlike and is strangely wonderful here. Judy Baby, as an infant in ballooning diapers, sings the only song of any substance in Act One, a disturbing duet with herself in which she fantasizes about the Judy she would like to become when she grows up ("I want to be BEAUTEEFUL"), ominously replicates her parents' values even as she tries to avoid them (I'll never hit my baby, unless ...

Now, in Act Two, we're in a different world altogether. The play is no longer about Punch and Judy getting divorced, but about "Houses of Women," a world of Judys, unmarried, divorced and widowed, who live together trapped in worlds of routine, repetition and false consciousness. Judy Baby -- now divorced, the mother of grown-up twin Judys, and living with her mother Judy, her Aunt Judy and her Grandmother Judy, with visits from Mrs. Judy down the hall -- tells us that she is writing down in her black-and-white composition book everything that happens and everything that is said, including her telling us that she is writing down everything that happens and everything that is said.

This strangulated world of Judys -- as solipsistic as Baby Judy's writing exercise -- allows for some moderately interesting discussions and some moderately interesting musical numbers, notably Pashalinski's aching memories of her sexual desires for her late husband.

This act doesn't really have anywhere to go. And the trendy gender-bending, both in the casting and in the plot-line (Judy Baby's pregnant lesbian daughter, played by Playten with some quick costume changes, and Judy Baby's ex-husband transsexual-turned- lesbian), seem strangely old-hat. But at least something, finally, is going on.

-- Cary M. Mazer