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Newsday.com

THEATER REVIEW

Organ transplants arenít always so heartwarming

BY ROB KENDT

Special to Newsday

November 21, 2007

"The human heart has many folds and windings," Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, and the awkward poetry of that image could sum up Noah Haidle's whimsical new quirk-fest of a play, "Rag and Bone." The "folds" here would be the layers of metaphor that Haidle wants to tease out of our popular conflation of the heart, a mere blood-pumping organ, with our essential emotional identity; the "windings" would be the meandering narrative focus that ultimately chokes its flow.

George (Michael Chernus), a part-time ladder salesman, runs a tidy heart-transplant business on the side, toting the goods around in a portable cooler and popping them in and out of clients as easily as contact lenses. These snap-in organs don't sustain life so much as provide emotional and spiritual value.

George's prize specimen is the freshly sprung heart of a beret-clad poet (Henry Stram). This heart, he promises to his clients, lets its host "see the world with a profound clarity" and "feel other people's suffering." Meanwhile, the poet, though somewhat worse for wear and noticeably benumbed, struggles on without the heart, befriending a bruised hooker (Dierdre O'Connell) who's under the thumb of a threatening but brittle pimp (Kevin Jackson).

Back at the ladder store, the poet's heart finds its way into the highest bidder, a callous millionaire (David Lynn Weston) who dresses like W.C. Fields yet barks orders into a cell phone. When, apropos of nothing, George's dimwit brother, Jeff (Matthew Stadelmann), implants their late mother's heart in George, and the pimp and hooker retire to a beach in Bermuda, "Rag and Bone" has morphed into a faintly tiresome shaggy-dog joke.

On a versatile set by Dane Laffrey that evokes the backstage of a theater and contains its share of modest surprises, director Sam Gold helms a vivid cast that is flawlessly attuned to the deadpan cartoon rhythms of Haidle's dialogue.

But if "Rag and Bone" is often diverting and disarming, it's hard to ignore the story problems we're being diverted from, and the theatrical hokum we're being disarmed against.

RAG AND BONE. Written by Noah Haidle. Directed by Sam Gold. Through Dec. 16 at the Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Dr., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-868-4444. Seen Sunday.