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The ironic and the bizarre in a grim little melodrama

Morocco Play by Allan Havis. Directed by Mr. Havis. There is more - and less - than meets the eye in ``Morocco,'' at the WPA Theater. Playwright Allan Havis mingles irony and the bizarre in a psychological suspense melodrama involving a Jewish-American architect, his Spanish-Arab wife, and a Moroccan prison official. The ordeal begins when the American, a Mr. Kempler (Sam Freed), shows up at a Fez prison to secure the release of his wife (Gordana Rashovich), who has been arrested on a charge of prostitution. Alternately taunted and cajoled by the Colonel (George Guidall) who runs the jail, the desperate Kempler calls on American diplomatic aid as the ordeal lengthens.

By the time Mrs. Kempler regains her freedom, the truth of the charge has been confirmed. The second scene of the 90-minute, intermissionless play transports the Kemplers to M'alaga, Spain, for a reconciliation dinner, in the course of which Kempler tries to comprehend his wife's chronic promiscuity. The action concludes in Morocco. After falsely confessing that he has killed Mrs. Kempler and then admitting that such a crime never took place, the distraught Kempler persuades the Colonel to give him several compromising photos taken at the time of his wife's arrest.

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Mr. Havis employs his grimly explicit little tale as the framework for a series of philosophical observations on such topics as Arab-American relations, the contrasted roles of women in the Mideast and Western societies, and the general Americanization of the world. Kempler is in Fez as the architect of a shopping mall, while Mrs. Kempler holds a responsible roving post with a globe-girdling American bank. The Colonel reprovingly compares her ``liberated'' state with the modest but important role of the woman who is content to be his wife and the mother of his children.

``Morocco'' preserves a sustaining tension through a series of well-crafted, sometimes amusing dialogues. The writing reflects the skills of a young dramatist widely represented in the regional and Off Broadway theater, who has won assorted commissions, grants, and awards - a status clearly more than promising. The problem with his Moroccan caper is that it promises more than it delivers. While resounding climaxes are scarcely a priority item in today's playmaking, a theatergoer can at least expect something more conclusive than the irresolute ending Mr. Havis gives us.

The play is serviceably acted under the author's direction, particularly by Mr. Guidall as the guileful, sometimes humorous, inevitably sinister Colonel. The production (scheduled to run through July 24) has been efficiently designed by Bill Clarke (settings), Craig Evans (lighting), and Mimi Maxmen (costumes).

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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