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Theater & Arts
A working-class tale that's a bit labored

'On the Line'
'On the Line' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Joe Roland. Directed by Peter Sampieri. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., Manhattan. Through April 23. Tickets $36. Call (212) 239-6200. Seen Saturday.

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Special to Newsday

April 13, 2006

"I know who I am," boasts the scrappy Dev (Joe Roland) as he gets dressed for work at the top of "On the Line." The way he says it, it sounds more like a challenge than an affirmation. Indeed the rest of this new play, also written by Roland, essentially concerns itself with the industrial-strength chip this Long Island townie carries on his working-class shoulder.

In the play's disarming, bravura opening scene, Dev's monologue opens out to a trio, as he and buddies Mikey (David Prete) and Jimmy (John Zibell) suit up for work at the plant and regale us with the mythic tales of their schoolyard troublemaking. "We weren't bad kids - we were just no good," they explain, finishing each other's sentences in a seamless three-way narration that sets us up for a rockin' blue-collar romp.

Five Towns College
But Roland has Clifford Odets, not Billy Joel, on the brain. When his three characters go to work on a machine part, in a brief but impressively realistic moment on Michael McGarty's brick-heavy set, one of them sustains a mild injury from an equipment failure. Before we know it, Dev has escalated a tart exchange with the foreman into a labor complaint, and "On the Line" has stumbled from its promisingly playful opening into less interesting territory. It becomes a prosaic, plot-driven drama pitting the union against management, friend against friend: grudge versus reunion. The play has a few twists and turns in store, but they can't shake the workmanlike sense of routine that settles over the play.

Like so many once-youthful rowdies, these 30-something musketeers are now relegated to a regular table at the local watering hole, not far from the dartboard. Whatever fire they may have once had was long ago doused by pitchers of beer, and the edgy effrontery they used to direct at all comers is aimed primarily at each other. One is married, one divorced, and one - guess who? - resolutely single. But at the local bar, their home away from home, these three bob contentedly on the continuum between boyhood and old age.

Most of the play's barroom badinage is well-observed, and some of it is brutally funny. Reminded that his life outside work consists of alcohol and Internet porn, Dev responds testily: "It's a phase." But there's nothing particularly fraught about these exchanges, so that when labor issues threaten this inseparable trio, the introduction of life-or-death stakes feels awkward and contrived.

Director Peter Sampieri and his cast do generate one genuine scene of in-the-moment tension and release. When Jimmy tries to have an 11th-hour talk with the stubborn, strike-obsessed Dev, he can't pry his friend from the Jets game on the barroom TV. "If this is an intervention, can it wait until the game is over?" Dev quips. Against his better judgment, Jimmy gets swept up in the game. It's a stirring moment, merging text and subtext beautifully. If only the rest of the play were as captivating.

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