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February 19, 2003

Recent Plays

! Bierce's Zingers Still Zing, and He's Still Pretty Dour
`Bitter Bierce, or the Friction We Call Grief'
P.S. 122

"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Had Ambrose Bierce ever heard those words and taken them to heart, he would have been an exceedingly quiet man, because Bierce seems to have had an unkind word for everyone and everything he encountered.

That, at least, is the portrait we get in "Bitter Bierce," a one-man show about Bierce, the caustic journalist and storyteller who fought in the Civil War and lived an eventful life afterward, eventually disappearing in the lawlessness of the Mexican Revolution in 1914.

The play, written by Mac Wellman, is must viewing for writers and comics because Bierce showed clearly the limits of certain types of humor. Deal primarily in cynicism, as he did, and you are likely to be largely forgotten after a few generations, as he is. Only those who temper their cynicism with humanity are going to become Mark Twain.

Not that Bierce's zingers have lost their zing. Mr. Wellman, artfully blending Bierce's fiction and nonfiction, finds plenty of passages that still sound current, especially selections from "The Devil's Dictionary," first published almost a century ago. ("Rear, noun: in military parlance, that part of the Army that is closest to Congress.") The point, though, is not simply to rediscover Bierce's writings, it is to rediscover the man behind all the invective. Stephen Mellor plays Bierce, and if he sometimes seems in a rush, he keeps his dour demeanor throughout. This Bierce never pauses to admire or enjoy his own cleverness.

That makes him, by the play's end, a remarkably sympathetic character for someone who was so harsh. We feel sorry for his never being able to escape his self-made straitjacket.

"Bitter Bierce" runs through March 2 at 150 First Avenue, at Ninth Street. NEIL GENZLINGER

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