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Charleston Stage drops the drama for laughs in Butterflies are Free

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Andrew Cotlar and Sheridan Essman float through the summer of love in butterflies

Sight Unseen

Charleston Stage drops the drama for laughs in Butterflies are Free

By Nick Smith

Butterflies are Free

Charleston Stage Company

Running through March 24 at 8 p.m.Dock Street Theatre

135 Church St.

577-7183

www.charlestonstage.com

40 Years Ago: Playwright Leonard Geishe develops a story about a blind man who starts a new life in a rundown New York City apartment. He's inspired by the true-life adventures of Harold Krents, an attorney so adept at coping with his lack of sight that his local draft board thought he was faking and declared him fit for duty.

38 Years Ago: Geishe's finished play, Butterflies Are Free, opens on Broadway. Geishe drops the law angle, transforming Krents into Don Baker, a blind wannabe folk singer browbeaten by his clingy mother. Baker falls in love with next door neighbor Jill Tanner, a ditzy '60s hippie chick. The strength of the play lies in its balance of comedy and melodrama, and audiences dig the mélange -- Butterflies runs for 1,128 shows.

35 Years Ago: A film adaptation helps boost the career of a young Goldie Hawn, who embodies the naïve, high-spirited Jill. The film retains the strong dramatic elements of the play along with its elements of screwball comedy.

This month: Charleston Stage brings the play out of mothballs, ditches most of the dramatic nuances, and produces Butterflies as a simple comedy. This works fine in the opening act, when Jill and Don meet and fool around. But it's hard for the actors to hold the audience's attention when they're playing flimsy comedy stereotypes through most of the show.

Andrew Cotlar plays Don, the mom-pecked young man striving for independence. Cotlar is credible as a blind guy in a vulnerable emotional state, although he misses out on some opportunities to contrast his home-schooled, mannered character with that of Jill the flower child. His finest scene revolves around an argument with his mother, where he stops simpering and shows a stronger side.

Sheridan Essman captures Jill's outgoing, unselfconscious nature with the requisite breathless enthusiasm. She helps keep the first act moving swiftly and her performance is more naturalistic than Cotlar's.

Missy Lansing has the best lines as Mrs. Baker, Don's domineering mom. At times, Lansing shows flashes of what might have been -- those little expressions of concern and regret that map out any parent's face. At others, her mannerisms are contrived and annoying, particularly when she screws up her face to express disgust at lowbrow punchlines.

The fourth character is Ralph Austin, a rival for Jill's affections and another potential caricature. Burton Tedesco excels at this role. As the theatre director who's always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, his appearances adds much-needed pizzazz to a slower second act. In his short time on stage Tedesco adds extra dimensions to his character -- subtle when he can be, over-the-top when he needs to be.

Austin threatens Don's burgeoning relationship with Jill, who wants to act in a play called Do Unto Others (which, with its climactic naked drug overdose, sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than Butterflies). Jill has to decide whether to stay with Don or move in with the director, by which time the audience is close to not caring -- why should we be concerned with the fates of ciphers or stereotypes?

This is partly the playwright's fault; Jill can be exceedingly dim for the sake of cheap laughs. Two hours into the play, she still forgets that Don is blind for the sake of a cheap laugh about "seeing." It's also a choice of director Marybeth Clark, whose plan to present a broad comedy will leave audiences smiling but gives them scant food for thought.

The actors follow their direction well and get plenty of laughs. Costume designer Barbara Young's fab gear is suitably groovy, scenic designer Stefanie Christensen's apartment set is adequately grungy, and the whole show maintains an air of perky innocence, despite (or because of) the inclusion of free love, booze, cigarettes, and actors in their underwear. Yet since this is a play about seeing beyond surface appearances and "feeling" what a person's like deep down inside, Clark and her crew have missed the point. There's little in this production that will be worth remembering 40 years from now.

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