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Originally published March 16, 2012 at 5:30 AM | Page modified March 16, 2012 at 12:38 PM

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Women on the edge, in 2 plays with local settings, on Seattle stages

Reviews of "Torso," by Keri Healey, and "Emerald City," by S.P. Miskowski.

Seattle Times theater critic

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Local theaters are premiering two elliptical new plays, with local settings. Both track some spooked and explosive women in extremis.

'Torso'

Keri Healey's ambitious new drama keeps you guessing from the start.

The debut production, staged for Printer's Devil Theater by David Bennett, opens (and ends) with a shadowy sequence that could be a rape scene. Or maybe not.

It takes a while to connect the dots of this noirish tale, which imposes one tangled story and set of characters on another.

In one scenario, we follow Daphne (the compelling Sarah Rudinoff), a clearly unsettled woman who finds herself heading home to Bitter Lake from SeaTac in a taxi driven by a familiar-looking cabbie (the also-compelling John Q. Smith).

In an alt scenario, we witness a Midwest brother (Stephen Hando) and his vicious sister (Susanna Burney) plotting a grisly crime of violence.

How these two narratives (with additional flashbacks) correlate is the weakest aspect of "Torso." The "why" is stronger, as Healey probes the vicious spells that jealousy and grief can cast on seemingly "normal" people.

Lurking in the dusk here is a moral thriller that at its creepiest brings to mind the movie "A Simple Tale," or any number of Stephen King suspense stories.

But in a genre that depends on tightly wound plotting, not all the dramatic screws and springs are in place to synchronize this dark fable and make it pop.

The little jolts of surprise, transitions between past and present, and delineations of character could be much crisper. And the final payoff could be larger.

But "Torso" keeps you attentive — thanks to an able cast (which also includes Emily Chisholm in several roles), and a script that may not entirely make sense — but keeps enticing you to figure it out.

Through March 31, Theatre off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

'Emerald City'

Former Seattle resident S.P. Miskowski's new play at West of Lenin also ends back where it started. But why?

That's not the only head-scratcher in this sporadically clever but often-confounding depiction of a group of women and their attitudes toward our fair burg.

Scarlett, a dour journalist, hates the city so much she can't bear the thought of returning here for a freelance job. Newcomer Lillian falls in love with the town, after a few visits to Pike Place Market and some coffeehouses.

Tina, a daffy tour guide, moved to Seattle on a wildly wrong impulse. And Dot, an older local native unwilling to sell her family home to developers, is so inscrutable it's hard to tell how she feels.

Unfortunately, most of these initially promising characters become less interesting (or lifelike) as their paths intersect, and as the play's tone (and direction, by Meghan Arnette) wobbles between snarky comedy, hostile resentment and melodramatic dysfunction.

There's pungent local flavor in the delightful cutout, pop-up set of local landmarks, designed by Brian Stricklan and Michael Lindgren.

And the actors give their all. Megan Ahiers has the most to work with, as she warmly embodies Lillian's transition from insecure girl-toy to confident urban explorer. And Morgan Rowe tries her darnedest to make Tina someone you won't just write off as an obnoxious kook.

But Jennifer Pratt can do very little to make the static, hostile Scarlett — who blames Seattle for every ecological, personal and career failing in her life — bearable.

Billed as a "love note/break-up letter," the play does tap into an authentic free-floating ambivalence toward Seattle that is worth dramatizing. But at this point, "Emerald City" feels like a collection of character sketches and monologues in search of a purpose.

Through April 7, West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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