Dale Stein isn't there yet, but she's getting closer.
Her latest one-woman show, "A Fresh of Breath Air," reveals her as an increasingly adroit comic actress with a bent for capturing what's touching in society's oddballs.
With only a prop or two to aid in the transformation, she can go from a drugged-out street dude to an over-the-hill actress, from a super-efficient architect with visions of remaking the world to a pathetic would-be singer who has fried her brain on everything from LSD to NutraSweet and confesses helplessly, "I was kinda an explorer."
No ordinary creatures, they all meet at the French restaurant of Fifi Mouloir, which is no ordinary place. When Fifi isn't looking, the tables and chairs move wherever they want. "Stay," Fifi commands them.
It is probably best to resist the obvious impulse to compare Stein to Lily Tomlin, or to describe "A Fresh of Breath Air" (currently at 1742 Church St. NW) as Stein's "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." Tomlin had the benefit of a concise and perceptive script by Jane Wagner. Stein, on the other hand, creates her own material, and while some of it suits her well, the services of a playwright would come in handy about now.
Although there is a Tomlinlike satirist in Stein, aware of the fads and foibles of human beings, there is also a surrealist who relishes life in the outer fringes. Fifi boasts of her recipe for "sacre' bleu." Mzz. Alexandria Vertu, the architect, is building a skyscraper called "Microwave Towers," the first three floors of which are "ocean" (since, she explains, we all emerged from water).
After announcing that she will sing her "Russian song," Shane, the aspiring canary, adopts a look of ravaged anxiety and proceeds to mutter into the microphone a series of "brrrs" and barely audible grunts.
Some of the characters go back to 1982, when Stein unveiled them at 1742 Church St. (then the New Playwrights' Theatre) as part of an evening of sketches, improvisations and songs. At the time, I thought Stein was fumbling for an original tone. But her portrait of Nina Navarre -- a dimwitted Broadway actress, dictating her memoirs and slowly getting sloshed on martinis -- indicated a talent worth cultivating.
Stein is fumbling a good deal less these days. Clapping on a springy blond wig that seems to come unsprung as she downs the booze, she continues to limn the giddily self-absorbed Nina. But with how much more subtlety! Even when the lines are mediocre, Stein persuades you with a gesture, a laugh, a shrug.
Taking out a compact, Nina holds it up to her face just long enough to realize that nothing's to be done, then quickly tucks it away. The moment suggests a lifetime of narcissism gone awry. Director Christopher Ashley may be responsible for some of the evening's finer shadings, but it is evident that Stein has improved immeasurably as an actress.
While songs still figure in the show (Charles Goldbeck and Malik Tate provide the accompaniment), Stein has relinquished her own musical ambitions and given them to her characters instead. The distinction is significant. The performer is now subservient to the roles she is playing.
Promising as all this is, "A Fresh of Breath Air" is not without drawbacks. The whimsy can get pretty suffocating on occasion. Fifi, for instance, has running conversations with Doggy, an imaginary canine that talks back and even threatens at one point to pack its bag and run away from home. Even pet lovers may find that hard to take. For the most part, the characters are overlapping presences, who come and go without a great deal of rhyme or reason. You can't help feeling they would be more interesting if somehow they connected more deeply.
As it is, the best of them share a sense of loss that lends a bittersweetness to Stein's comedy. Lenny, the cool street dude, pretends to have it all together, but he's floating in a drug-induced haze. (His theory of seduction: Be a void. Tell women nothing. "They will fill in the blanks.") Shane has had part of her brain replaced by plastic. Not only is she unsure of the new signals she's receiving, she's doesn't know where they're coming from. As for Nina, having entrusted her life to a ghostwriter, she realizes with a drunken start that he's given her a whole new identity and that it has nothing to do with who she really is.
This is more than passing comedy. An authentic vision of humanity lurks inside "A Fresh of Breath Air." When she is hitting her stride, which is about half the time, Stein is captivating. Because of that, you'll put up willingly with the other half.
A Fresh of Breath Air, by Dale Stein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Music by Charles Goldbeck and Dale Stein. Set, Steven LeBlanc; costumes, Sharon Lynch; lighting, Jeff Guzik. With Dale Stein, Charles Goldbeck, Malik Tate. Presented at the Church Street Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, through June 17.