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[whitespace] Gassed About 'Gas'

Lincoln High School takes do the desert in Peter S. Conrad's play 'Gas'

By Richard von Busack

Abraham Lincoln High School is the Santa Clara Valley's magnet school for drama, which means theater as good as any you'll see in Santa Clara County is being performed in a high-school cafeteria (here painted and swaddled in plastic to black out the outside world).

"We need a new theater" is practically the subtitle of Gas, the play running at Lincoln High School weekends through Nov. 5. Gas by Peter S. Conrad--husband of director Arcadia Conrad--is an absurdist comedy reminiscent of Christopher Durang.

It concerns a pair of stranded boys in the desert, represented by a sand-colored road and a field of plaster of Paris cactii. Thomas, who calls himself "Taz" (Justin Keyes), and the bratty Stevie (Patrick Kovach-Long) walk down the road carrying a gas can and loaded pistol in hand. That this revolver fails to fire in the third act (thus breaking that boring Chekhovian law) is only one surprise in this often inspired comedy.

The two boys entertain each other with puns, knock-knock jokes and pathetic fantasies of Charlotte Barstow (Sarah Chaney), the most stacked-up girl in their class. When Barstow turns up as a fata morgana, they wonder if she's just "a hallucination about hallucinations."

Babe Ruth materializes to escort the girl away, and after a few days on the road, the saguaros begin to talk. One (Chris Vaughan), the plump wiseacre kind of cactus, is dressed in a forest-green sports coat, a puffy green hat shaped like the hot-dog-on-a-stick hostess' headgear, and green oven mitts on its hands.

Initially brash and friendly, the cactus can't help but denounce the boys for stupidly, for not carrying water, for not staying by the out-of-gas car where they could be found by the highway patrol. Later, when Taz and Stevie find another talking cactus (also Chris Vaughan)--the first one's brother? The same cactus in a different frame of mind?--they're in no mood to take its advice. "Eat me! Suck me!" the cactus urges, trying to save them with its water-saturated fibers, filled with moist cactusy goodness. But by then, of course, it's too late.

Endings are always the hardest parts of any play, and Gas tapers off after the intermission. The first part of the third act is witty: a dying fantasy of television stardom and a store full of junk food. Still, the heavy existentialism of the finish seems like the first easy answer to a writer's stalemate.

Nevertheless the cast members are all naturals, and Conrad's debut play is up to the ticklish and ominous themes of his self-published comic-book Attempted Not Known. Taz and Stevie do seem like living characters and not symbols. Thus they make this comedy about slow death in the desert comic and yet a matter of weight and sometimes sorrow. ALHS's Theater Department has certainly earned a new theater.

Gas plays Nov. 2-4 at 7:30pm at Lincoln High School. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and will be available at the door.

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Web extra to the November 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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