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A verbal tone poem, sad/sassy songs, and punk-rock foolery

Worstward Ho Text by Samuel Beckett. Staged by Frederick Neumann. ``Worstward Ho'' establishes its mood with the sardonic pun of Samuel Beckett's title and ends with a faint hint of sunrise. Or is it sunset? One hesitates to charge Beckett with anything more positive than what is intrinsic to the creative act itself.

The Beckett aura evoked in Frederick Neumann's treatment suits the 1983 text dubbed by the author his ``last gasp.''

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Set designer John Arnone's barren stage expanse features a grotesque skeleton stretched out alongside the yawning grave that dominates the scene. Standing waist-deep in the excavation, Mr. Neumann, portraying a gravedigger with a talent for words, delivers an hour-long monologue on man's meaningless role in an incomprehensible universe.

In an expressive performance, the ashen-faced actor gives eloquent voice to the tantalizing word-music of the text.

As the recital unfolds, its principal human subjects -- an old man, a boy, and a woman -- materialize silently upstage.

Their eerie presence is made eerier still in Jennifer Lipton's sepulchral side-lighting.

One of Beckett's typically startling stage effects occurs when the gravedigger's shovel slips from his grip and hurtles down to unfathomable depths (with echo-chamber sound effects by L. B. Dallas).

Seeking to make sense of the verbal tone poem (and with no help from Miss Tipton), I jotted down impressions of passing phrases: ``Try again, fail better . . . Beyondless, thenceless, thitherless . . . The void, how big, how full . . . More worse -- something worse still . . . Unworsenable worst . . . To last, unlessable least . . . Only one good -- gone for good . . . ''

The sense is evident, even if the meaning of the impressions is not literal. Within the prevailing melancholy, there exists a recurrent ironic humor -- as in the earlier noted word play of the title.

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Produced by Mabou Mines, ``Worstward Ho'' is receiving its world premi`ere at Off Broadway's CSC Theatre.

Although accessibility is a relative matter where Beckett is concerned, the adaptation seems less penetrable than ``Krapp's Last Tape,'' the 1955 monodrama which opened recently at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. To paraphrase a 1960s rock-music title, ``Worstward Ho'' might be described as a grayer shade of pale. It runs at CSC through Sept. 27. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill Play by Lanie Robertson, with songs from various sources. Directed by Andre Arnotte. Starring Lonette McKee.

Following its Off Off Broadway success earlier this year, ``Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'' has reopened at Off Broadway's Westside Arts Theatre. The factually based play by Lanie Robertson once more stars Lonette McKee in a magnetic performance as the legendary Billie Holiday. With an emotionally searching script and strong support from musical director-pianist Danny Holgate and his two fellow instrumentalists, Ms. McKee creates a vivid biographical-musical portrait of the unforgettable black singer.

According to the Playbill for the Vineyard Theatre production, the Lady Day reminiscences take place on a Friday midnight in 1959, ``four months before Billie Holiday's death.'' The scene is a seedy South Philadelphia night spot patronized for the occasion only by a few window-store dummies that form part of William Barclay's setting. For these inattentive mannequins -- and for the responsive audience out front -- Billie tells her story and sings her songs.

The more than a dozen musical numbers cover a gamut of moods, from such deeply felt compositions as ``Strange Fruit,'' ``God Bless the Child,'' and ``When a Woman Loves a Man'' to lighter specialties like ``Them There Eyes'' and ``What a Little Moonlight Can Do.'' As personal historian, Billie doesn't have to name-drop. The greats who inspired her and/or with whom she was associated just turn up naturally as she reminisces -- artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. The gallantry of Shaw and his band, sometimes facing the challenges of the crudest kind of racism because of their black vocalist, earns a special tribute from Billie.

There is more humor than bitterness in these often salty reminiscences of highs and lows and personal woes. Recalling a time behind prison bars in Philadelphia, she quips: ``Philly is the only place that gave me federal housing.'' Yet such ordeals as the drug addiction to which she became (at first) an innocent victim have taken a shattering physical toll. Although Billie always recovers on the night at Emerson's, there are moments when it seems that the show will not go on.

As skillfully directed by Andre Ernotte, Mckee wisely creates a character rather than attempting an impersonation. With Mr. Holgate's song styling, however, the musical performance by this fine singing actress is admirably true to the spirit of the singer who described her method as ``a blues feeling with a jazz beat.'' Angry Housewives Musical comedy by A. M. Collins (book) and Chad Henry (music). Directed by Mitchell Maxwell. Musical staging by Wayne Cilento.

In ``Angry Housewives'' four frustrated females swap their unliberated routines for a moment of liberated, punk-rock glory. The transformation takes two acts, a wisecracking sitcom script by A. M. Collins, and a mostly noisy pop-rock score by Chad Henry. The cheerful but elementary entertainment at the Minetta Lane Theatre comes to New York from Seattle, where it has run for more than four years.

The animated musical cartoon grows progressively loonier as the quartet pursues its goal of winning the $2,000 first prize in the local rock club's talent contest. Under Mitchell Maxwell's direction, the actors give the kind of high-energy performance the rudimentary caricature demands. Making the most of their opportunities are Carolyn Casanave, Vicki Lewis, Lorna Patterson, and Camille Saviola (the four determined females) and Michael Lembeck, Michael Manasseri, Lee Wilkof, and Nicholas Wyman (the four ultimately obliging males).

Pianist-conductor Johnny Bowden and his combo provide brisk accompaniment (orchestrations by Dave Brown and Mark Hummel). David Jenkins (scenery) and Allen Lee Hughes (lighting) have collaborated to create a visually amusing production, and costumer Martha Hally enhances the show's climax with a wild punk-rock wardrobe to match the Angry Housewives' dreams of glory.

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