If the timing was coincidental, it could have hardly been more fortuitous: One week after the close of Hapgood at Duke, Burning Coal premiered Safe House at Kennedy Theater. In the earlier work, Tom Stoppard claimed to critique the cold war–in what ultimately proved an ostentatious celebration of the spy thriller. Which left it to playwright Lydia Stryk to actually escort us out to the dark end of fun and games, where the romance and glamour–and the ideals and ethics–all wink out, one by one.

That’s where we first meet Marta, a foreign cultural attache just arrived in the United States, on the run from something big back home. Unfortunately for her she’s sought the assistance of Henry, an American spy, but one based more on Aldrich Ames than, say, Jack Ryan. The belligerent boor does everything but strip-mine her for information, maintaining his brittle dominance through veiled threats and opaque allusions–just as he does with Mary, his iron dishrag of a wife.

Which is ironic, since Henry is actually the most vulnerable character on stage. After 24 years in an undiscussable intelligence job–and the added pressures of that little sideline as a double agent, selling out his country for top dollar–an increasingly unstable man morphs from protector to menace.

Where Hapgood remained seduced by spy-shop protocols in the upper echelons of 1980s British Intelligence, Safe House focuses more on the human price exacted by a life of lies.

The utter fiction of the title is conveyed within moments when all three characters first meet in Henry and Mary’s home. Forget the emphasis on security in their gated community and alarm-protected house; clearly no one here is safe. The enemy’s within.

The animated Marta attempts to break down Mary’s barriers of isolation and mistrust. Ultimately, both women attempt to act against a mutual threat.

But plotting too elliptical keeps this world premiere more of a cryptogram than is useful. Henry’s deterioration and the women’s accord are presented as faits accomplis, without mention of the specific events that provoke them.

And the increasingly fractured discourse draws more attention at times to itself than it does to the issues the playwright is attempting to engage. Though Marta paints vivid, poetic pictures of political persecution at home, Henry invariably uses exaggerated, overripe and overextended metaphors as verbal battering rams with her (“fishing” to recruit other spies, “deciding quickly at a restaurant” when a limited window of opportunity exists).

Clearly, Stryk wants to highlight the banality of the language of espionage, and the ultimately shallow games being played with it. Still, it’s hard to tell at times whether Henry’s dialogue is being written by Tom Clancy, David Lynch or Donald Barthelme. Should we really be tempted to giggle in these passages?

Hitting some of the same character notes he did in Nixon’s Nixon, Derrick Ivey effectively conveys the menace and megalomania of Henry, though he truly is a bit too young to have a 16-year-old son. The rigidity of Debra Gillingham’s Mary is contrasted by Jenn Suchanec’s Marta, who appears at times to have been more choreographed than directed by Jody McAuliffe.

Stryk’s message is timely, but her play still needs work.

We close this time with two corrections, both from our Dec. 1 report. Martin Zimmerman, not Dylan Parkes, refreshed us as the Russian scientist whose heart got caught behind enemy lines in Duke Theater Studies’ Hapgood, while Steve Clarke began his career as dance photographer well before his retirement from UNC in 1999. We regret both errors.

***1/2 The Santaland Diaries , Triad Stage–True confession: I was never that big a fan of David Sedaris’ early work. Sure, his NPR essays were funny. But in print he came off gratuitously snide: nearly as cutting-edge and post-modern as, say, Don Rickles. Most of his first pieces represented various attempts to elevate the mockery of rubes and other innocents to an art form. His endless fixation on the strange behavior of his lessers got old quickly.

With that said, The Santaland Diaries is a lot more successful than the majority of this early oeuvre. The wretched excesses of the holiday season provide an obvious, broad (and more than usually deserving) target for the author’s barbs. The presumably autobiographical narrative puts Sedaris in the belly of the beast: working as a temp–as an elf–at Macy’s, ushering addled parents and kids through SantaLand. Yes, it’s nearly worse than one can imagine.

In this one-person show, artistic director Preston Lane bolts from the gate with manic energy to spare, his character a caffeinated bundle of neuroses who choreographs his distaff subjects with a wave of a cigaretted hand. (Very retro–just like those standup comics of the ’60s!) Also credit his and co-director Jay Putnam’s work, crafting a character who’s more than just a xerox of the author’s whiny radio persona.

Light designer Jen Sickles and sound designer Michel Marrano’s switchblade scene changes ably punctuate the abundant punchlines, although Branden Tucker’s inflatable set repeatedly threatened to mutiny on opening night.

Still, Sedaris’ idea of his character’s Achilles’ heel–a burning desire to work for a daytime soaper–seems as contrived as an improbable micro-epiphany that comes out of nowhere at the last minute and vanishes just as quickly.

Combined with the odd, occasional social insight, these attempt to lend gravitas and depth to excuse what’s ultimately a one-hour marathon of put-down humor. When Sedaris’ character admits, “I’m not a good person,” believe him. He’s always willing to laugh–as long as it’s at someone else’s expense. Still, we’re mystified that such a clearly superior being could write an ending as flimsy as this. (Thursday-Saturday. $15. 336-272-0160.)

***Not About Heroes , Playmakers Rep–Though actor Ray Dooley’s memorable portrait of Siegfried Sassoon seems etched in acid, the decidedly imperfect courage and half-measures in this script and this production ultimately betray the conscience of its two subjects: Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two of the most famous soldiers and protest poets of World War I.

What else can we make of director Joseph Haj’s apparently self-scripted (and presumably authorized?) addition to Stephen MacDonald’s text, a prelude which only musters enough courage to compare the lies of WWI to the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident at the outset of the Vietnam War–as opposed to, say, far more recent fictions involving Saddam Hussein’s involvement with Sept. 11, or weapons of mass destruction?

At least a one-liner in the new preamble alludes to the sexual orientations that influenced his subjects’ poetry–something MacDonald’s extensively researched script curiously never does.

Ultimately, this otherwise well-intentioned work proves too spindly for the awful lifting asked of it. Partially, it’s a problem of balance: compared to Dooley’s robust Sassoon, Greg Felden is disadvantaged when directed to remain too weak as Owen throughout the play. But when it comes to actually staging the famous poems of the pair, Haj inexplicably leads a retreat to the printed page more often than unleashing their characters to join their authors on stage. A moving, mid-show reading of Sassoon’s “The Death Bed” proved the model for what the rest might have achieved. Equally strange: how a play about Owen could leave out his most famous poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est?”

McKay Coble’s cold, elegiac set of marble, ash and concrete suggests a war memorial laid over layers of armaments, sandbags and munitions boxes. But as things stand in this two-character play, Sassoon and Owen ultimately seem outnumbered on an empty stage against the Herculean tasks they have to do: convey a comprehensive, panoramic picture of the time, expose the horrors under which fellow soldiers died, and sound the alarm against the lies of war. With so minimal a cast and so vast a subject, at times Heroes almost seems an attempt at history on the cheap. It’s hard not to conclude that its subjects deserve much more. (Through Sunday. $30-$10. 962-PLAY.)

**1/2 A Christmas Survival Guide , Temple Theatre–The interesting half of this Christmas cabaret update reflects the urban yuletide angst of present-day thirtysomethings. Credit Brian Norris’ witty commuter-nightmare version of “Silver Bells,” Gretchen Goldsworthy’s open mockery of Kurt Weill and Elizabeth Williams-Grayson’s memorable take on a fine new song, “All Those Christmas Cliches.” But subtract from the less successful half an audio mix that buried the vocals when we saw it, and an anemic two-man band not up to the show’s rock and R&B send-ups. (Through Sunday. $18-$10. 774-4155.)