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Saints preserve us

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Neighborhood Playhouse's holiday show A Company of Wayward Saints pays homage not to Yuletide conventions, but other traditions that date back centuries. Justin Welborn directs a loose staging of George Herman's 1963 play of the same name, which pays tribute to the centuries-old performing style of commedia dell'arte. The funny thing about Wayward is that the less it goes for laughs, the more satisfying it becomes.

As in the commedia tradition, the actors each play an archetype, like the tart (Arin Logan) or the nag (Barrie Gibson). The harried manager/clown Harlequin (Steven Westdahl) tries to keep the squabbling company of performers together. Wayward packs its two hours with rimshots, raucous crowd interactions, apologies for getting "carried away" and hoary quips like, "I wasn't creeping up on you, that was your underwear."

The plot hinges on whether the troupe can perform a show on the theme of "The History of Man" well enough to impress a local bigwig. The first act offers broad, vaudeville-style skits on topics like the Garden of Eden and the death of Julius Caesar, with local references to MARTA and the Shakespeare Tavern thrown in.

In the second half, the company takes a different approach, enacting scenes illustrating universal human experiences like adolescence and marriage. A frontier couple and their doctor reflect on "Birth," while a condemned priest and a tyrannical general's dialogue offers a perspective on "Death." These sketches ease up on the humor -- two are straight-up drama -- but prove more affecting than the show's zany clowning. They may be slow-paced and drawn-out, but have an appealing sincerity.

As Harlequin, Westdahl proves the show's coolest and most confident comic performer, but paradoxically, he's best when he angrily rants about his own "huge" talents and taps a darker intensity than the evening's frivolous fun. It's a shame that A Company of Wayward Saints makes no direct references to the holidays, as Christmas would be an ideal target for both its slapstick silliness and its less comfortable observations.

A Company of Wayward Saints plays through Dec. 21 at Neighborhood Playhouse, 430 W. Trinity Place. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. $12-$18. 404-373-5311. www.nplayhouse.org.

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