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Absorbing Mark Medoff drama; frantic Keith Reddin caper

The Hands of Its Enemy Play by Mark Medoff. Directed by Kenneth Frankel. Highest Standard of Living Play by Keith Reddin. Directed by Don Scardino.

``The Hands of Its Enemy,'' at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a major event of the season and an impressive advance for playwright Mark Medoff. In his prizewinning ``Children of a Lesser God,'' Mr. Medoff dramatized the academic and subsequent marital relationship between a caring teacher of the deaf and an independent-minded pupil.

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Phyllis Frelich, who won the 1980 Tony Award for her performance as the student, rejoins Medoff in the far more complex and penetrating treatment of a superficially similar situation. A university resident theater in the southwest is presenting Marieta Yerby's (Ms. Frelich) first play. At her insistence, the group's producer (Dann Florek) has engaged one-time colleague Howard Bellman (Jeffrey DeMunn), whose brilliant directing career foundered on the alcoholism from which he is at present shakily recovering.

Bellman challenges all concerned, notably Marieta, by referring to her effort as ``a nice little revenge play'' about a woman who murders her abusive husband instead of ``a big play about domestic violence.'' Thus begins the central struggle between the resistant neophyte and the growingly infuriated veteran. Out of the face-off, Medoff creates the kinds of climaxes that explode with drama.

Relationships among the attendant characters further complicate and intensify the situation. Marieta's real-life daughter Amanda (Lucy Deakins) plays the daughter in her mother's drama, and Bellman's resentful ex-wife Diane (Jane Kaczmarek) plays the mother. Rehearsals for the play-within-the-play plus the between-scenes exchanges, revelations, and confrontations move the action forward. The unfoldment is as fluid as it is intricate.

Building on the absorbing Medoff script, Kenneth Frankel has staged ``The Hands of Its Enemy'' superbly. The extraordinary Mr. DeMunn belongs among that select company of players whose every movement and delivery seem intuitive. He is ruthless with Bellman's weaknesses while yet respecting the passion for artistic truth that drives the man. Eloquent (literally) to her fingertips, Ms. Frelich is a winning and expressive Marieta forced finally to dig deeper than ``the little revenge play'' with which she starts out.

The world of playmaking cum academia is splendidly represented in a cast which includes Robert Steinberg as Marieta's companion and sign-language translator, Joyce Reehling as a cheerfully indispensable departmental assistant, and Ralph Williams as an obliging, red-headed\stage manager. ``The Hands of Its Enemy'' builds on the inherent theatricality of its milieu. Besides being absorbed in the dramatic conflict, the spectator feels part of a creative process.

John Lee Beatty's scenery (lighted by Pat Collins) enhances the sensation in a series of incidental locales within the larger-than-life surround of the bare stage that serves as the basic setting for ``The Hands of Its Enemy.''

Jennifer Von Mayrhauser designed the costumes for this excellent production, which is scheduled to run until Dec. 7.

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Keith Reddin's ``Highest Standard of Living,'' at Playwrights Horizons, plunges its naive American hero into a phantasmagoria of misadventures. Part comic nightmare, part black farce, the new Reddin caper proves intermittently amusing, prevailingly frantic, and ultimately forced.

In a succession of bizarre scenes, Mr. Reddin imagines what befalls Bob (Steven Culp), an American graduate student attending Moscow University, when illness lands him in a Moscow hospital and brings him under the scrutiny of Soviet officialdom.

Freed from his Russian ordeal, the innocent abroad returns home to find himself the object of both surveillance and recruitment by United States government agents. (The Moscow-Washington parallels are more shallow than sophisticated.) Bob's paranoia increases with the arrival of Ludmilla (Leslie Lyles), the compassionate and trusting doctor who attended him in Moscow and who has immigrated to America at Bob's suggestion.

By the time the hero's perils reach their tragi-farcical climax, ``Highest Standard of Living'' has severely tested Bob's and the spectator's endurance. Meanwhile, Reddin fires away at such targets as hucksterism, communist and capitalist consumerism, random American violence, pop music fashions, and big brotherism wherever practiced. While abounding in comic notions, the play lacks a sustaining significance.

A large cast responds energetically to director Don Scardino's demands, in some cases assuming double and triple assignments. John Arnone has equipped the animated cartoon with red brick-wall settings which serve Moscow and New York interchangeably, thus visualizing Reddin's basic sight gag. David C. Woolard costumed the elaborate production and Joshua Dachs designed the lighting. ``Highest Standard of Living '' runs through Nov. 30.

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