Theater Schmeater, 325-6500. $15 Fri-Sat, $12 Thurs/Sun. Through Feb 23.
Two different plays lurk within Heather MacDonald's Dream of a Common Language. One plods through Dream's first act--the sort of play in which women implore, "How can I be taken seriously?" and men respond, "Stop being a woman." Female Impressionist painters pine and intone bitter memories of exclusion and dismissal, while male Impressionists express hapless, condescending dismay at the women's unhappiness. The pace is lugubrious and the audience members sit torpidly in their seats for an hour of moral instruction.
Then, after intermission, the spirit of the second play arrives, and it's like the sun breaking through the clouds. The women, having been denied a place at the table with a gathering of men, decide to hold their own dinner in the garden. They gather food, play games, and generally enjoy themselves--and lo and behold, the audience enjoys itself just as much. This second play is clearly the play MacDonald wanted to write, the one she took pleasure in writing; the script exudes a relaxed playfulness and freedom, and the actors' performances expand and take flight. MacDonald still attacks chauvinism and explores the frustration of the women's stunted careers, but she does so with subtlety and humor. The result is not only more effective, but also allows the characters to be human beings rather than political positions.
Even in the first act, though, lovely visual moments abound--director Sheila Daniels also designed the set, which drapes the entire theater in the off-white of an untreated canvas, against which a bowl of oranges glows and the flickering lights of fireflies (created by Christmas tree lights) shimmer. The flavor of Renoir, Monet, and Cassatt arises without any slavish attempt to re-create their paintings. When Dream of a Common Language hammers at ideas, it's leaden; but when it pursues the senses, it's a delight. BRET FETZER