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On stage: congenial comedy, a one-man show, a grim drama

The Chopin Playoffs Play by Israel Horovitz. Based on stories by Morley Torgov. Directed by Stephen Zuckerman. `THE Chopin Playoffs'' fills the small American Jewish Theatre at the 92nd Street Y with the glow of humanity -- warmly viewed, comically treated. The Israel Horovitz adaptation marks the finale of his trilogy based on chapters from ``A Good Place to Come From,'' drawn by Morley Torgov from memories of his Canadian youth. The trilogy opened with ``Today I Am A Fountain Pen'' and continued with ``A Rosen By Any Other Name,'' both of which were well received. Those (like this reviewer) for whom ``The Chopin Playoffs'' marks a first encounter with the trilogy needn't feel left out of things. With Sol Frieder's ubiquitous Ardenshensky to explain briefly what has gone before, the spectator is amply prepared for the events occurring in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, during ``the final weeks of the school year, 1947.''

As the title specifies, the events center around the Chopin piano competition for a university scholarship that pits Irving Yanover (Jonathan Marc Sherman) against Stanley Rosen (Nicholas Strouse). The 17-year-olds' rivalry for the whimsical affections of the fair, non-Jewish, Fern Phipps (Maddie Corman) and the ongoing Yanover-Rosen parental feud provide the ingredients for a congenial comedy about the rites of passage and other matters.

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``The Chopin Playoffs'' depicts a world seen through Rosen-tinted glasses -- a world abounding in the minutiae of provincial life, social and commercial concerns (the Yanovers and Rosens own stores), intra-family and inter-family ruckuses, and the ecstatic anguish of young love. Fern's romantic indecisiveness over Irving and Stanley complicates things dreadfully for her two ardent admirers.

By the time Ardenshensky delivers his summing up, Mr. Horovitz has brought his uncommonly endearing comedy to a happy conclusion. But if you think I'm revealing the outcome of the Chopin playoffs, you've got the wrong goy. Let's just say there are no losers. And that includes the cast, affectionately directed by Stephen Zuckerman.

In addition to the young people and versatile Mr. Frieder (who wears several hats), the players are Marcia Jean Kurtz and Sam Schacht (the Yanovers), Karen Ludwig and Richard Portnow (the Rosens). Set designer James Fenhagen's clever arrangement of exterior-interior locales meets the needs of the fluid scenario, with lighting by Curt Ostermann and costumes by Mimi Maxmen. Unseen Roland Loest provides the indispensable pianism.

``The Chopin Playoffs'' continues at the 92nd street Y through June 6. Happily, there are future plans for the Horovitz trilogy. 21A Play by and with Kevin Kling. Directed by Steven Dietz.

At the Westside Arts Theatre (Downstairs),``Penn & Teller'' has begun sharing its performance schedule with ``21A,'' by Kevin Kling. Named for a Minneapolis/St. Paul bus route, Mr. Kling's imaginative one-man show is a sort of insight-seeing tour, a blend of characterization and caricature. The objects of interest are not passing urban landmarks but the passengers who make their appearance en route between the Minnesota twin cities.

The Kling cast of casuals begins with driver Ron Huber, whose lingo is earthy but who knows (for crossword puzzle purposes) that a ``fichu'' is a lady's triangular scarf. Leading off the passengers is Gladys, carrying two huge shopping bags filled mainly with cat food. Among other things, Gladys discourses on husband Big Bob, who can name every city in the world with a K-Mart store. Other featured players in Mr. Kling's spiels on wheels include a minister of ``Democratic Progession'' from Boston, a student, a character who insists he is Not Dave, and Captain Twelve Pack, a verbally florid vagrant who wears a cut-out beer carton for a helmet. All of Mr. Kling's folk are garrulous. Most are gregarious. Their diverse accents and speech styles are duly observed.

During the blackouts in which the actor is making his quick costume changes, recorded conversations cover such timely topics as the changing shapes and ingredients of cinnamon buns (``Is there cinnamon in 'em?''). Believably written and engagingly performed, ``21A'' is a lively bus tour de force.

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An arrangement of folding chairs furnishes the bus in Michael Sommers' simple set design, with costumes by Lori Sullivan and lighting by Jaimie Meyer. ``21A'' premi`ered in 1984 at the Quicksilver Stage in Minneapolis and comes to New York via the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it won the 1986 Heideman Award for Best Short Play. The present production is scheduled to remain here (Mondays through Wednesdays) until June 25, tour several midwestern states this summer, and return to the Westside Arts in November. Cuba and His Teddy Bear Play by Reinaldo Povod. Directed by Bill Hart.

``What do you want?'' asks a baffled Cuba (Robert DeNiro) of his teen-age son Teddy (Ralph Macchio) at one point in ``Cuba and His Teddy Bear.''

``I want to be valued highly,'' replies the hapless youth. The odds against Teddy are all but insurmountable. Twenty-six-year old dramatist Reinaldo Povod explores them relentlessly in his first full-length play, premi`ering at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Susan Stein Shiva Theater.

Cuba, a drug-dealing ex-convict, conducts his illicit business openly from his lower East Side Manhattan apartment. He theorizes that what Teddy sees going on will fortify him against involvement with drugs. As in most other respcts, Cuba has woefully miscalculated. Teddy is already on the road to heroin addiction.

Pressed by Cuba to explain his ambitions, Teddy admits haltingly that he wants to be a writer. Unfortunately, his role model in this department is Che (Michael Carmine), a junkie described as the only Hispanic to have won a Tony Award for drama. Che's contemptible behavior in a crisis compounds Teddy's confusion.

``Cuba and His Teddy Bear'' proves to be a grimly sardonic ordeal. While its dialogue is authentically sharp (and insistently foul-mouthed), the slice-of-life drama tends to lose the spectator in its profusion of unresolved themes. In the verismic performance staged by Bill Hart, the intense but shallow braggadocio of Mr. DeNiro's Cuba contrasts effectively with the sensitivity of Mr. Macchio's Teddy as the boy struggles to survive amid the surrounding moral chaos.

Other lower-depths characters are convincingly acted by Burt Young (Cuba's Jewish partner), Nestor Serrano, Wanda DeJesus, and Paul Calderon (assorted customers). The production was designed by Donald Eastman (scenery), Anne E. Militello (lighting), and Gabriel Berry (costumes).

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