The 2004 fall theater season began last weekend with a bang: three majors whose triumphs and struggles provide a decent introduction to this community’s artistic achievements as well as its complexities. Things only promise to intensify this week. Since it only comes ’round once a year, cross out the plans you had for Friday night. You’ll want to see the Second Annual N.C. Play Slam at Carrboro ArtsCenter.

Last year’s edition was a load of laughs–and an important opportunity to see and support a brace of surprisingly good local playwrights. Similar to a poetry slam, audience members voted–by ballot–for the best one-to-three-minute scenes in each round of the competition. At the end of the night, the winning playwright took home cash from the door.

The slam had an informal, jam-session air, with stage veterans and gifted newcomers trading licks for an appreciative insider’s crowd. By the end, two things surprised me: the number of local playwrights I’d never met and the quality of most of the work. It clearly belonged on local stages, more often than once a year.

A similar nod is due Paperhand Puppet Intervention , whose colorful, complex, multi-story papier-mâché puppets have embodied thought-provoking political and environmental allegories in recent years. Always a season highlight, the group returns this weekend to Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre for their latest pageant, Wood, Stone, Fire, & Bone. Showtime’s 7 p.m. each night, but go early and take a picnic–and cushions for those stone steps.

N o, our five-star reviews don’t grow on trees. Manbites Dog Theater’s production of Nixon’s Nixon marks only the second since our present rating system began last September.

This production clearly demonstrates regional independent theater at its finest, in a work of rare conscience and humor combined. Though Carl Martin’s work as Henry Kissinger is obviously notable, Derrick Ivey’s performance as former president Richard Nixon must be called breathtaking; indeed, career-defining.

His achievement goes well beyond cheap impersonation, as we watch him dig into the absurd egotism, the darkness and the pain of this historic character in a way we’ve never seen from him onstage before.

Part of the credit for this must naturally go to director Joseph Megel, who has now challenged more than one local actor to reach inside himself and find something none of us had seen before. We also note Christine Morris’ vocal coaching and Ivey’s self-designed makeup, which helped him look and sound astonishingly like the part.

In this rewarding comedy, Nixon’s cornered in the last few hours of his presidency, looking for any way out besides resignation. Kissinger has to ensure there’s no other way out.

The conversation careens back and forth from cynical self-interest to something else. Ivey’s Nixon is constantly looking over his shoulder, in fear of history’s judgment. Playwright Russell Lees has Nixon and Kissinger awkwardly impersonate other world leaders, reliving moments of greatness with Brezhnev and Mao. Even as the brandy decanter empties, we’re struck by the growing distance between the two men.

Martin’s Kissinger is a stiff, awkward–and basically historically accurate–brainiac with a one-track mind as he endlessly, tactlessly tries to tell Nixon that he should remain in power after Nixon’s gone.

Like naughty schoolboys, both of them contemplate one last round of nuclear brinksmanship before Nixon asks for the bill–the total number of humans killed on his watch. It’s important to note this sequence reveals–or invents–a moment of conscience many Americans didn’t believe Nixon to have during his time in office, and some may not be willing to grant even now.

Still, at this distance, Lees argues that there were some boundaries even Nixon was unwilling to step beyond to maintain power–and if he wasn’t, a few crucial fail-safes in the federal system would prevent things from going too far. This play makes us nostalgic for a time when both of these qualities were unquestionably present in our government.

The demands of University Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies also mark an important step forward at N.C. State. Though we frequently take John McIlwee’s excellence in costume design as a matter of form, here he’s achieved another career-defining moment, garbing showgirls and guys in everything from gold tux and tails to shimmery symphonies in black and white.

These should be the least of any company’s worries when putting on this show, whose 50-odd onstage roles demand a deeper bench than any regional theater can be expected to provide. Intergenerational casting also becomes a central issue, as elderly characters are confronted with the memories of their younger selves–live, on stage and dressed to the nines.

This production handily answers most of these concerns. The aging veterans from a series of Ziegfeld-like showcases relive their individual moments of glory. Teresa Fernandez’s turn as Heidi in “One More Kiss” is operatic, unforgettable. Yolanda Batts sells the confidential “Who’s that Woman,” after an underamplified Janis Coville belts “Broadway Baby” and Margaret Webb romps through “Ah, Paris!” Given the extreme difficulty of this show and the guts it took to stage, I hate to find any fault with it. But there are difficulties in the two complicated couples whose paths cross, years after being roommates in the big city.

Sara Schrock is rock-solid as the cynical, wise-cracking Phyllis, and Fred Gorelick’s in fine form (but questionable voice at points) as Buddy, the man in the other marriage. But as constructed here, we don’t see what plagues Phyllis about a far too likable Ben. And with so many actors ably acting and selling Sondheim’s songs, JoAnne Dickinson’s deficits with both as Sally are particularly noticeable.

It’s still very much worth seeing. But if the character work at center were as golden as the rest of this show, I would have had to give up five star No. 3 this week. I still wish I could have.

Meanwhile, credit the cast at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Pump Boys and Dinettes for an easy-rolling good time last weekend. The ensemble’s work on “Highway 57” and “Drinking Shoes” was fine, as were Rose Martin and Sandi Sullivan’s duet “Tips” and the Pump Boys’ “Fisherman’s Prayer” and “Catfish.” But the audio mix cheated the band and vocalists, regularly losing Kenny Roby’s lead guitar and burying backing–and lead–vocals on more than one occasion. With music this good, that’s a crime.

***Comic Potential , Actors Comedy Lab–In Alan Ayckbourne’s odd little future comedy, Adam, the boss’ nephew at a British network, decides to inject a little humanity back into TV by teaching Jacie, a performing android, the subtleties of physical humor: double-takes, pies in the face, the whole schmeer. When she responds intuitively to comedy, he sees something human in the machine–and falls in forbidden love with her.

As the bionic comedienne, Morrisa Nagel is an entertaining enigma, while Scott Nagel’s likable Adam seems a character straight out of Rod Serling. Sheila Outhwaite, Byron Jennings and David Klionsky happily, hammily send up network melodrama while Amy Flynn finds little challenge here as corporate barracuda Carla Pepperbloom. When he’s in character and in moment we truly like Jerry Zieman’s wash-up of a film director reborn in cybercomedy. But when he’s not, he seems to be reading off a teleprompter himself. (Thompson Theatre, NCSU. Thursday-Sunday, through Aug. 21. $15-$12. 515-1100.)