It was the scenario every critic dreams about–and dreads. Summer 1997. By accident, I’d discovered a new theater company, producing a new script by two new local playwrights. Just one shot to see their work, since the pair had one weekend in Vernon Pratt’s loft in downtown Durham–an intriguing space no doubt, but still well off the usual migratory path for theater in the area.

The company name was both hands theatre. The show: Imaginary Numbers.

I dashed to make the show. I’m still glad I did. After Tamara Kissane and Cheryl Chamblee let us meet two uncanny characters, each part child and part woman, we experienced the game they always play–the one that lets them look through an ordinary window into the souls of perfect strangers.

For once, being simultaneous playwrights, actors and directors didn’t betray two students just out of what was then the Duke program in drama. Their script was as evocative as their performance; both made for a very strong introduction to a promising new company.

And since I’d just found out about it, I had no way of letting readers know about it before it closed.

After that, both hands vanished.

You don’t know how much I hate it when that happens.

Which is why I’m making damn sure this time the word gets out about brooms: a play about saying yes, before its single weekend of staged readings this Saturday and Sunday at Manbites Dog Theater. After an extended Chicago walkabout (and three other both hands shows, produced both there and in Oberlin, Ohio), Chamblee relocated to the area last fall and appeared in Shakespeare & Originals’ Julius Caesar in October 2003.

She’s effervescent about what sounds like an audacious experiment in layered text–something I used to call spoken-word counterpoint. Chamblee shows me a page of manuscript where the actors’ parts are written out on lines like sheet music. It sounds fascinating. So does the plot about a set of magic brooms (as seen on TV) that give four single women the chance to order up the partner of their dreams–and live with the consequences.

Then I remember what happened the last time regional audiences didn’t see their work the first go-round.

My advice: change plans if need be. Going on their track record, brooms will probably be worth going out of your way to look at. And if you don’t catch it the first time, there’s no telling when you’ll get another chance.

We’ll say the same for the one-week StreetSigns New Works Initiative Free Public Readings, a festival of new plays at UNC’s Swain Hall. Actor and playwright Elisabeth Corley’s Vanishing Marion opened the series Monday, June 21. Wednesday, June 23, Derek Goldman and Joseph Megel co-direct Andrea Stolowitz’ Tales of Doomed Love, skewed retellings of historic loves from the victims’ point of view. Friday and Saturday, June 25-26, it’s Everything That Rises, T. Cat Ford’s biography of Flannery O’Connor interspersed with stories “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People” and “Revelation.” Showtime’s 8 p.m. each night.

They can’t make it cheaper than free. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings

AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL: Keigwin + Company, Reynolds Theater, June 23, $23-$19, 684-4444; Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Page Auditorium, June 24-26, $36-$21, Children’s Concert, 1 p.m. June 26, $10, 684-4444; John Jasperse Company, Reynolds Theater, June 29-30, $23-$19, 684-4444; Acts to Follow (North Carolina choreographers): Laura Thomasson, Amy Chavasse & Lisa Gonzales, Michelle Pearson, Courtney Greer & Jodi Obeid, Baldwin Auditorium, Duke East Campus, 6:30 p.m. June 26, FREE; Dancing for the Camera Film and Video Festival, White Lecture Hall, Duke East Campus, June 25-27, FREE, 684-6402.

CHILDREN’S THEATER OPENINGS: Jackpot!, Teen Arts Program, Cary Academy, June 25-26, $8, 662-7771; Little Women , Towne Players of Garner, Garner Historic Auditorium, Thursday June 24, $8-$6, 779-6144.

**1/2 Always, Patsy Cline, Temple Theatre–I’ll admit it: Rose Martin may have permanently retired this show for me in the 1999 Raleigh Little Theatre production. Still, if you saw that show, I think you’ll agree that this production adds little to the experience–except for Lynda Clark’s amusing take as Cline’s number one fan–while it subtracts something fairly important: the amazingly faithful replication of Cline’s songs. Jodi Bennett-Bradshaw may have similar pipes, but her exaggerated delivery throughout seems to miss the point of Cline’s deceptively simple vocal presentation. Where RLT music directors Diane and Bernie Petteway strived for note-for-note realism, here music director Chuck Martin seems happy with less. (Through June 27. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

**1/2 Sweet Bird of Youth , Theatre in the Park–Tennessee Williams’ atmospheric 1959 drama purports to reveal what’s left when an artist’s dreams, talents and youth have all faded, as Alexandra Del Lago, an aging screen actress in full flight from her comeback premiere, seeks refuge in a small Southern beach town motel with a calculating cabana masseuse she picked up back in Palm Beach. Dorothy Brown brings a wounded, icy sophistication and a brief but commanding sensuality to Del Lago, but director Tony Lea and actor James Miller were still working on the enigma of her consort, Chance Wayne, when we saw the show.

Admittedly, he’s a baffling set of walking contradictions. But if Chance can’t get by on his looks in Williams’ world, this show can’t similarly skim the surface of his character. With more of a sense of increasing desperation–from a quickly-leaving youth and dreams that die individually before his eyes–we could see Chance’s responses when being forcibly separated from his illusions, one by one. Without that, too frequently here he’s little more than just another pretty face. (Through June 27. $18-$12. 831-6058.)

**1/2 All My Sons, Flying Machine Theatre Company–Playwright Arthur Miller’s variation on the sins of the fathers is a caution for our military times. In it, the son of an engine parts manufacturer comes of age through the process of slowly uncovering corruption in the present and the past at home, at his father’s factory and in what seems at first a picture-perfect suburban neighborhood. Unfortunately, this production demonstrates what happens when a theater company’s commendable academic goals are brought into conflict with its artistic ones.

John Honeycutt’s fine as Joe, a father presiding over a house of lies. Mary Rowland, clearly one of this region’s finest actors, convinces here as his wife, Kate, while newcomer Katie Poirier distinguishes herself as Ann, their son’s girlfriend.

But four of the nine on stage (including one of the leads) clearly had not transcended student status–even though one appeared to be developing before our eyes. While we’ve heard good things about Flying Machine’s Meisner courses, prematurely casting students here has lowered the company’s usual professional standards. (Durham Arts Council. Through June 27. $12-$5. 594-1140.)

** The Man Who Came to Dinner, University Theatre–Another N.C. State show where the costumes and set design upstage most of the acting? Afraid so. Credit costumiere extraordinaire John McIlwee for the lovely period threads (including those silent movie tributes Jan Doub Morgan dons) and Corky Pratt for the tasteful drawing room.

Then debit director Fred Gorelick for incomplete character development throughout this fallen souffle of a comedy. McIlwee never truly commanded in the title role of Sheridan Whiteside, and similarly anorectic character development plagued Whiteside’s secretary, Maggie; Richard and June, the supposedly chafing children of Whiteside’s hosts, the Stanleys; battleaxe nurse Miss Preen; and vamp Lorraine Sheldon, among others.

Morgan, Matthew-Jason Willis (as a flaming Noel Coward stand-in), Dimitriy Kogan and Jordan Smith provided brief but sufficiently robust demonstrations of full characterization to make its absence elsewhere all the more apparent. (Thompson Theater, N.C. State University. Through June 26. $16-$6. 515-1100.)