A Pale and Lovely Place
Written & Performed by Kevin Joyce
through April 11 at ACT's Bullitt Cabaret

LOOKING LIKE A POST-MORTEM STAN Laurel and singing with the gusto of a speed-addicted Bing Crosby, Kevin Joyce is your guide through A Pale and Lovely Place. It's an evening in ACT's Bullitt Cabaret that feels like riding the crest of a panic attack in which "life is only as great as the greatest of your fears."

As cleverly staged by Kevin Kent and lit by Ann Ciecko, this one-act monologue (written by the performer) is as original as it is hard to describe. Joyce--an UMO Ensemble co-founder with admirably subtle comic timing--plays three disturbed characters who take us on a tour of the human psyche. Insisting that "you're important and everybody wants to be your special, special friend," together they frenetically detail, in song and story, the universal rules of living, or "the Covenant."

A Pale and Lovely Place is often bitingly funny, and the tunes--acerbic ditties that have Joyce crooning advice such as "take what you hate and make it a present to yourself"--are all priceless. But not everything runs smoothly. The fearful, neurotic persona who should be the show's heart is ill-defined in performance--at times he seems too much like a sensitive version of Dracula's Renfield (though he provides one of the evening's more deft and moving moments: a riff on some recorded words that play back and glow with new meaning). And sometimes Joyce's rants are too pleased with their own glibness; his rushed phrasing can be off-puttingly vague. But more often than not a gem-like turn of phrase will pop out and surprise you.

Much of the publicity for this show since its original 1996 Fringe Festival incarnation has labeled it a laugh-fest. There is no doubt you'll laugh a lot, but many things in this show aren't funny, and aren't supposed to be. Leave Joyce to his own rhythm, and don't feel guilty if you're not slapping your knees. What he and Kent have pulled off is a show that, despite its dark aches and ironies, does not go in for easy, hip cynicism. Beneath this unnerving acid trip of a performance is an honest compassion for those lost souls suffering beneath "the inevitable, ineffable fear of life itself."