Th--tre de l'amour

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

With Valentine's Day just passed, love has not just been in the air--it's also been on the stage. Three different plays about three disparate topics, like mistaken identity, crossword puzzles, and the dewey decimal system, all are related by one thing: the theme of two random people meeting by chance and falling in love.

One of theater's finest love stories is the romance between Rosalind and Orlando in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The current production running at the Ahmanson, imported from the Theatre Royal Bath and directed by Sir Peter Hall, brings out the darker elements of the Bard's classic comedy. Hall turns the Forest of Arden into a sort of minimalist Hooverville, but the staging is most successful in the scenes between the young lovers.

Much of this is due to the presence of the director's daughter, Rebecca Hall, in the role of Rosalind. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, and a seeing truly great Rosalind is a rare and life-enhancing event. Ms. Hall, a wobbly first scene notwithstanding, has the potential to be an excellent Rosalind. She has the look (and blush) of a tall Molly Ringwald, and an expressive voice that begs comparison with the great Judi Dench.

The performance isn't fully formed yet, but it glows with promise and emotion. To watch Hall's expression, as Orlando says that &quotneither; rhyme nor reason can express" his love for her, is to watch a woman--in an instant--literally fall into love. It's a magical moment in this otherwise solid production that boasts a strong supporting cast, if a somewhat sluggish pace when Rosalind isn't on stage.

Another British import could be seen this past weekend at the Skirball Center, as it hosted the U.S. debut of the Unlimited Theatre company. The troupe presented their play Neutrino, which might be best described as a Simon McBurney-esque romantic comedy. The play alternates between scenes of a young man and woman meeting on a train, and a scientific &quotlecture;" on the smallest particles in the universe, called neutrinos.

But amidst all the talk of atoms and chaos theory--not to mention moments where the play segues into interpretive dance--is the simple story of boy-meets-girl. The dialogue is sharp and the performers, young and likable. Neutrino is not a major work, but there are moments that stimulate both the mind and the heart--enough of them, in fact, to make one want to see the Unlimited Theatre gang should they make a return engagement.

Instead of subatomic physics, the new play 2 Across deals with even more difficult science: finishing the morning crossword puzzle. This two-person show is about two crossword-obsessed people who meet by chance on a early morning commuter train.

As the cheeky title suggests, 2 Across indulges in volumes of contrived wordplay. Luckily, much of it is clever--and a few gags are laugh-out loud funny. Jerry Mayer's comedy is rather precious, but hard to dislike, even though it represents sheer overeducated, upper class fantasy. One has overlook a great deal of improbability in 2 Across, namely that Bay Area Rapid Transit (which the two characters are riding) runs at four in the morning and that if it did, two wealthy caucasians in their 40's would be riding it alone instead of hiring a car or driving their SUV.

Romantic comedies, though, are at heart all about faith in that ultimate improbability: two people finding their perfect match. 2 Across may not be able to suspend disbelief about many parts of its plot, but thanks to the performances of Sandra Kerns and Steve Vinovich, this modest local hit is clearly connecting with audiences who want to believe in that four-letter synonym for affection that begins with the letter L.

2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse and As You Like It at the Ahmanson Theatre run through March 27.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.