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Lodge's The Writing Game a clever, funny farce

THE WRITING GAME

By David Lodge.

Directed by Michael Bloom.

The American Repertory Theatre.

Starring David Margulies

and Christine Estabrook.

Continues through March 23

at the Loeb Drama Center.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

DAVID LODGE'S new play, The Writing Game, is absolutely brilliant. Yes, this is a play about writers and literary pretension, but don't worry, there's plenty of sex, lots of rude words, and it's heaps of fun. And you don't have to be British to understand it.

Of course, if you're an American like Leo Rafkin (David Margulies), you won't understand it. Rafkin is a scruffy and not too successful author, rather better at requesting sex from the nearest available female (though not necessarily at getting it) than at writing English prose. He's loud, he's boorish, he's really rather a creep; in short, the stereotypical American (as Britons regard them).

Lodge, himself a successful novelist of witty works on what happens when British and American academics meet intellectually, socially and -- of course -- sexually, is viciously observant, his humor searching out all the most unpleasant personality traits of his characters.

The Writing Game is set in a barn, somewhere in the English countryside, where a horrific course on creative writing takes place. The students are entirely untalented and the teachers full of hang-ups and jealousies, which Lodge fully discloses in their literature and personalities.

Maude Lockett (Christine Estabrook) is the perfect foil for Leo Rafkin. While Rafkin can be read like a book, Lockett takes some reading between the lines. Gracious on the exterior, she is instilled with a perfect talent for the best-mannered English hypocrisy. So, of course Rafkin wastes no time demanding sex. And of course, Lockett at first appears shocked and, after revealing she has been married for 20 years, viciously lets Rafkin know she doesn't find him "irresistibly attractive."

Well, not until he finds her soaped up in the shower, at any rate . . . .

Margulies brought out all the insecurity and self-doubt, the sleaziness, the bestiality of Rafkin. Estabrook meanwhile took us well beneath Lockett's smooth veneer to explore her beast within. Does she really not know that Simon St. Clair is gay before she discovers his brief bedtime "performance" indicates his lack of interest in women. Or does she allow him to take her merely to torture the unsatiated Rafkin in the room below?

St. Clair was cruelly characterized by Steven Skybell. St. Clair is at war with the world, hateful to everyone, indicative of how much he hates himself. His self-loathing and barely suppressed, closeted homosexuality created constant tension.

All three write trash, of course, and the audience is entertained by some of the worst of it, given at "readings" for the students on the course. The students walk out on Rafkin's crude obscenities, adding another chip to the mountain of insecurities not very far beneath the character's extrovert exterior.

Jerry Pavlon plays the terribly camp Jeremy Deane, who runs the course. Very drippy, Deane is just the sort of person Rafkin is set to hate. In a matter-of-fact, English way Deane takes for granted the clogged-up sink and kettle that has to be hit to spring to life and the other disamenities of this antithesis of Holiday Inn.

Jeremy Geidt periodically appears -- or, rather, his voice does -- as Henry Lockett, phoning from home to report an assortment of domestic casualties. Grimly funny, and very English, he phones to ask his wife where his cuff links are or to express his concern that the au pair might be pregnant in that special deadpan voice of the

totally lost, English upper-class twit. Which, given his position on the faculty of Oxford -- taking breaks from his tutorials to get friendly with some of his more attractive students -- is precisely what he is.

Finally, there's Penny Sewell, the student Leo Rafkin tells is talentless, who ends up doing some writing that's at least passably worthwhile. She's the one sincere character in the whole show, and Yanna McIntosh plays her plainly and honestly. How crummy she makes everyone else appear.

Look, The Writing Game is very funny, very dirty, and very clever: Go see it!