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A bold new recipe for whodunits

The American Mysteries Play written and directed by Matthew Maguire.

Matthew Maguire wants to transform and transcend the whodunit tradition. You can tell by the titles he gives the three parts of ''The American Mysteries.''

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First comes ''The Obvious,'' which sets up a detective story complete with corpse, private eye, witnesses, and suspects. Then comes ''The Mysteries,'' which thickens the plot with more exotic overtones. Finally we arrive at ''The Ecstasies,'' when the story careens toward some outer space of the mind where fact and fiction explode in waves of pure emotion.

It's a bold journey, and Maguire deserves high marks for attempting it, even though he never quite reaches his destination. He sets the stage (at La Mama theater center) spinning with new ideas and extravagant conceits. He parodies human nature - and theatrical cliches - with a rogues gallery of larger-than-life characters ranging from a bombastic Mayor to a punchy Fighter and a whirling dervish of a Writer. His imagery recalls sources as diverse as the movie ''Era-serhead'' and the dances of Laura Dean. His collaborators include an architect, a filmmaker, and such noted musicians as Glenn Branca and Brian Eno, their contributions woven into a tapestry that's almost as seamless as it is artful.

Given these virtues, why doesn't the show soar as high as it would like? One reason is the format: The plotty and predictable private-eye genre doesn't lend itself readily to experimentation, as the Mabou Mines theater group found out in its disappointing ''Wrong Guys'' not long ago. And most of the performers lack the special passion that's needed to weave a web stretching from the mundane to the outrageous. For a lesson in that elusive craft, the ''American Mysteries'' cast might visit an open rehearsal of the Wooster Group's forthcoming show, ''LSD Part 1,'' which features some of the most ingenious performing I've ever seen in a purely expressionistic context.

Still, one salutes the invention and audacity of Ma-guire - and the company he works with, Creation - for concocting and realizing so unexpected an exercise as ''The American Mysteries.'' And one looks forward to seeing where their quest will lead next.

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