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Eric Coble's new play For Better is a comedy of manners " sort of Moliere plus cell phones. Sometimes there are four interlocutors trying to speak to one another simultaneously over the airwaves. Southern Rep Artistic Director Aimée Hayes, who takes a role, says that the play began as a fugue for cell phones. The dizzying possibilities of cross communication in our fast-forward age build at crucial moments to desperate but hilarious outbursts of frustration. Maybe Moliere is the wrong reference. Imagine, instead, Romeo dialing up Juliet on her balcony instead of scaling the wall to plant one on her sweet lips.

Romance is in the air. Karen (Ashley Ricord) joins her father Wally (George Sanchez) in his living room in order to impart some momentous news " if she can just convince him to turn off the TV for a moment. Karen has gotten engaged to be married. She's only met the guy a few times, but they've stayed in touch by cell phone and email. Both Karen and her beau Max travel a great deal because of work. In fact, they met at a breakfast buffet at a national food-sales management convention in Florida. He is a scout for new locations for Starbucks all over the world.

When Karen's sister Francine (Hayes) learns of the engagement, she's against the marriage. She phones her husband Michael (Leon Contavesprie), who is on his way to another city where he will try to sell insurance for satellite dishes to the elderly. Other cutting-edge preoccupations also get slammed in this satire, like focus groups for testing mayoral slogans. For Better takes place in a world that's light years away from simple, physical tasks. Perhaps the plugged-in young set is amusing, in part, because many in the audience have more in common with the electronically challenged Wally.

In any case, Francine asks for Michael's help in finding out more about Max. Michael phones his piquant ex-sweetheart Liz (Veronica Russell), who agrees to undertake a Google search for particulars about the young Lochinvar " arrest records and such. Then Michael's romance with his ex-girlfriend rekindles. In one of those round-robins of cell phone confusion that mark the play, Michael tries to tell Liz he's fallen back in love with her, but his wife Francine is on the line.

Meanwhile, another family friend, Stuart (Sean Patterson), is stalwartly tramping around the world like an explorer from the 19th century. He joins the electronic conversations back home from remote places like a ravine in central Asia and a jungle in Uganda. He wears cargo shorts and what seems like an opera hat made of yak hide. Finally, he confesses he's wildly in love with Karen. He heads home to try and convince her to marry him instead of the mysterious Max.

Much of the suspense in the second act is generated by Stuart's courting and Karen's vacillations. The question finally comes down to whether she will accept Stuart, who has come so far to seek her hand in person, or marry Max over the cell phone. There is great similarity here with classical farce, but instead of doors slamming, the comedy rides along on the buzzes and beeps of mobile communication.

Director Gary Rucker has long shown himself to be adept at bringing out the best in comic situations. Here he has gathered an exceptional cast and keeps up a breezy pace that works well with this imaginative if somewhat skimpy material. A tip of the hat goes to the cast for creating distinct characters. It is noticeable that they seem to enjoy working together. The set by David Raphel and lighting by Marty Sachs are effective, as are the costumes by Elizabeth Parent. Once again, Southern Rep gives us a chance to see what's going on right now in contemporary drama.

click to enlarge Karen (Ashley Ricord) tries to persuade her father Wally (George Sanchez) to talk to her fiance.
  • Karen (Ashley Ricord) tries to persuade her father Wally (George Sanchez) to talk to her fiance.

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