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— Gabriel and Chantelle have been affianced for a long time (too long, suggest some of their friends, who speculate about the delay). They have an "open relationship," which means, in their case, Chantelle has remained sexually faithful to Gabriel, while he frequents the shadow world of Cape Town massage parlors where "happy endings" -- i.e., having more than a rubdown -- cost extra.

Gabriel says his dalliance is "just sex." Though Chantelle urges him to do what he needs without telling her, she sees sex as an act of love and tries to repress feelings of betrayal when he's gone who knows where. Then Chantelle begins to entertain fantasies. And Gabriel, who has been dispassionate about all his relations, makes a fatal mistake: he falls in obsessive love with teenage Chris, his favorite "rent boy."

In Happy Endings Are Extra, Ashraf Johaardien explores psychological boundaries in post-apartheid, white South Africa. The play wants to be Harold Pinter-like: short, tersely written scenes, blackouts, the unspoken signifying volumes. But Johaardien writes like a novelist new to drama. His descriptions of scenes -- how the moon hangs over Cape Town -- are vivid. But his monologues overexplain the obvious (quoting his therapist, Chantelle says Gabriel "only has surface feelings," for example, and we've already seen enough evidence without having to be told). And the dramatic confrontations slump from predictable dialogue.

When it looks at open relationships, and how some partners prefer a larger aperture than others, Happy Endings has interest (especially when Gabriel moves from open to closed and Chantelle from closed to open). As does the question of who's in control, since all three engage in a subsurface tug of war. And at least two of them fear an ultimate loss of control.

When Happy Endings concludes with a surprise, boffo ending -- call it reverse child abuse -- the play leaps into melodrama, buoyed by Madame Butterfly's Puccini-drenched hara kiri. The ending's a kicker, but it raises nagging M. Butterfly questions about Gabriel's inability to make connections or see what has slowly become obvious.

Happy Endings is part of Diversionary Theatre's new play development series: "Queer Theatre -- Taking Center Stage." The production values are worthy of Pinter. Scenic designer Greg Stevens has created a fluid, permeable stage. A scrim and flowing curtains allow boundaries to dissolve and spaces to merge. Mia Bane Jacobs's lighting follows suit: a penumbral world where shadows don't quite conceal and indirect lighting doesn't quite reveal.

Director Rosina Reynolds tries for nuance in a script weak on dramatic action. Characters either primp before a mirror or engage in foreplay on the couch, followed by the inevitable blackout. Not much to work with there, nor much to inhabit in the characters themselves. Claudio Raygoza does a fine, cold turn as Gabriel. Suggesting more emotional interiors than are in the writing, Raygoza teeters toward an explosion of repressed rage. Wearing Shulamit Nelson's sleek dresses, Anahid Shahrik almost makes Chantelle more a presence than just the playwright's unhappy pawn. Michael Purvis's Chris could feel his vengeance more fully, even before it arrives.

Rachel Le Vine's sound design merits special mention. Happy Endings aspires to opera and Greek tragedy. Whether subtle or blaring, Le Vine's insistent sounds suggest those possibilities throughout.

* * *

On Monday, January 29, the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle held its annual awards ceremony. As one moves from week to week, during the year, it's easy to lose sight of the Big Picture. Given the high quality of the winners, and the richness of the nominees in each category (some of which ran eight to ten deep before the final culling), the ceremony serves, among other things, as a reminder that the San Diego theater picture is bigger -- and even better -- than ever.



1.CHOREOGRAPHY: Kirby Ward, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Moonlight Amphitheatre

2. ORIGINAL MUSIC FOR A PLAY: Gina Leishman, Mother Courage and Her Children, La Jolla Playhouse

3. SCENIC DESIGN: Andrew Hammer, My Fair Lady, Welk Resort Theatre; Robert Brill, The Wiz, La Jolla Playhouse; Michael Vaughn Sims, A Body of Water

4. LIGHTING DESIGN: Chris Rynne, Lincolnesque, Old Globe Theatre

5. SOUND DESIGN: Christopher Walker, Titus Andronicus, Old Globe Theatre

6. COSTUME DESIGN: Lewis Brown, The Constant Wife, Old Globe Theatre

7. FEATURED PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL: Rena Strober, Dr. Zhivago, La Jolla Playhouse; Ron Choularton, My Fair Lady, Cygnet Theatre; Matt Bogart, Dr. Zhivago, La Jolla Playhouse

8. LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL: Thomas Sesma, The Times They Are A-Changin', Old Globe Theatre; Doug Bilitch, Urinetown, Starlight Theatre; Sarah Sumner, Urinetown, Starlight Theatre; Nikki M. James, The Wiz, La Jolla Playhouse

9. MUSIC DIRECTION: Parmer Fuller, Urinetown, Starlight Theatre

10. FEATURED FEMALE PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY: Katie Barrett, Mother Courage and Her Children, La Jolla Playhouse

11. FEATURED MALE PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY: Charles Janasz, Titus Andronicus, Old Globe Theatre; James Sutorious, Lincolnesque, Old Globe Theatre

12. LEADING MALE PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY: Joshua Everett Johnson, Copenhagen, Cygnet Theatre; Jonathan McMurtry, Trying, Old Globe Theatre; T. Ryder Smith, Lincolnesque, Old Globe Theatre

13. LEADING FEMALE PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY: Kandis Chappell, Collected Stories, North Coast Repertory Theatre; Lisa Renee Pitts, Intimate Apparel, San Diego Repertory Theatre; Sharon Lockwood, Zorro in Hell, La Jolla Playhouse

14. ENSEMBLE: Body of Water, Old Globe Theatre

15. TOURING PRODUCTION: Doubt, Broadway/San Diego

16. DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL: Brian Wells and David Brannen, Urinetown, Starlight Theatre; Des McAnuff, The Wiz, La Jolla Playhouse

17. DIRECTION OF A PLAY: Ethan McSweeney, A Body of Water, Old Globe Theatre

18. OUTSTANDING MUSICAL: Urinetown, Starlight Theatre; The Wiz, La Jolla Playhouse

19. OUTSTANDING DRAMATIC PRODUCTION: A Body of Water, Old Globe Theatre

20. SPECIAL AWARD: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Moxie Theatre

21. SPECIAL AWARD: Des McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse

Happy Endings Are Extra, by Ashraf Johaardien

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights

Directed by Rosina Reynolds; cast: Claudio Raygoza, Anahid Shahrik, Michael Purvis; scenic design, Greg Stevens; costumes, Shulamit Nelson; lighting, Mia Bane Jacobs; sound, Rachel Le Vine

Playing through February 11; Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-220-0097.

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