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Theater Review - Lips together, tusks apart

People sometimes travel in search of a metamorphosis: They want to return home a different person than when they left. Theatre Decatur's production of A Perfect Ganesh attempts to offer a transformative experience both for the characters and the company itself.

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In January, Neighborhood Playhouse relaunched itself as Theatre Decatur and announced a new season of plays that prove far more ambitious than the company's usual repertoire of theatrical chestnuts.

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In its Atlanta premiere, Ganesh wraps intriguing, outlandish gimmicks around the fairly straightforward plot of two middle-aged friends taking a vacation to India. Bad-tempered Margaret (Tamyan Sager Gandert) and cheerful Katharine (Cathe Hall Payne) play off each other like a female Laurel and Hardy team. But during their misadventures at airport terminals, hotel balconies and sacred rivers, each reveals a private sadness. Both mourn the deaths of their first-born sons, whom they encounter in fantasy scenes, and Katharine particularly hopes to assuage her misery on their passage to India.

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In the play's most eccentric touch, the narrator is the Hindu god Ganesh, whom jovial Jeroy Hannah plays in genie getup and bona-fide elephant mask. Playwright Terrence McNally also makes extended references to Henry V and the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," approximating the kind of East-meets-West cultural melange of Salman Rushdie's novels. As the deity of happiness and abundance, Ganesh uses an Eastern perspective to subtly guide both Westernized women from their grief.

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Veteran writer of accomplished plays such as Lips Together, Teeth Apart, McNally creates epiphanies out of short scenes and strange circumstances, and at times you can feel the production of director Barbara Hawkins Scott straining to tap the script's many riches. At times, Payne and Gandert present some overly broad comic shtick, but overall they locate the souls of both characters. David Weber plays a multiplicity of male roles and proves most effective as a dying young man befriended by Katharine. But the actor falls short of the range needed to convey so many different ages and nationalities.

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Despite such stumbling blocks, A Perfect Ganesh succeeds more often than not, though at times it feels as though the playwright incorporates too many anecdotes from his own Indian vacation. A Perfect Ganesh questions whether travel can really broaden people, and though it builds to moments of tender healing, it takes a melancholy look at mortality. Once you've come to terms with a loved one's death, all too soon you'll have to face another.