Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions’ joint presentation of Accomplices, three perplexing one-act plays directed by Jay O’Berski, is uneven and, at best, only moderately entertaining. Trouble starts with the opening segment: Part I of Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of portions of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1882-1941).

Finnegans Wake is an experimental novel, first published in its entirety in 1939. It is justly famous for its meandering stream-of-consciousness record of the characters and events that it chronicles, for its bold attempt to transform its poetic prose into a kind of music. It is also famously incoherent. And even inspired performances by Wordshed Productions’ co-founding artistic director Matt Spangler and veteran actress Nicole Farmer Taylor can do little to clear the waters that James Joyce so deliberately muddled with a generous helping of arcane Irish words and obscure literary references. Part II, which ends the evening with two characters standing in tubs of water, is another bracing but ultimately frustrating excursion into scrambled Joycean syntax.

The best show of the evening is One for the Road by British playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter (Betrayal). This harrowing drama, named 1984 Play of the Year by Drama Magazine, is set in an anonymous government office of an unnamed totalitarian state. It is a wrenching study of what the powerful can do to the powerless in a state in which there are no human rights, let alone civil rights.

One for the Road is a vicious cat-and-mouse game in which a police or military interrogator named Nicolas (John Murphy) feigns friendliness — even offering to share his liquor, to pour his prisoners “One for the road” — as he relentlessly questions Victor (Matthew Spangler) and Gila (Nicole Taylor), a bruised and bloodied man in a tuxedo and his bruised and bloodied and raped wife in an evening gown. Although the physical torture takes place offstage, the verbal torture of the interrogation is painful to watch, especially when the audience never finds out what these political prisoners are supposed to have done.

Somewhere the authorities also have in custody Victor and Gila’s small child, Nicky (Nick Smith in a haunting voiceover performance). But his ultimate fate is unknown.

A consummate character actor who specializes in playing villains, John Murphy is bone-chilling here as a smiling master manipulator who would and could do literally anything to get a confession from his prey. Matthew Spangler and Nicole Taylor provide excellent foils for Murphy. By turns desperate, defiant, and hopeless, they struggle through interrogations in which their tormentor’s well-chosen words hit them like body blows.

Krapp’s Last Tape, an absurdist comedy written in 1958 by Samuel Beckett (1906-89), is a wonderful showcase for the comic and dramatic skills of the ubiquitous Jordan Smith. Probably the Triangle’s busiest actor, Smith seldom gets the chance to demonstrate his breadth and depth of his craft and art as an actor that Krapp’s Last Tape gives him.

Smith makes the most of this opportunity. He gives a gritty performance as the doddering bathrobe and pajama-clad geriatric title character who simultaneously yearns for solitude and companionship. As he munches a pair of bananas and regularly refills his whiskey glass, Krapp listens to a tape he recorded decades ago when he was much more “alive” and “open” than he is now. Alternately funny and poignant, Krapp’s Last Tape is intriguing but not necessarily satisfying in the same way that Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for Godot (1948), is fascinating but circular and repetitive. Krapp’s Last Tape is a real head-scratcher.

Shakespeare & Originals artistic director Jay O’Berski and composer Kevin Darbro have done their best to enliven Accomplices with savvy staging and a pleasant original score. Unfortunately, these three perplexing plays leave the audience wanting more. An explanation would be nice.

Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions present Accomplices Thursday-Saturday, March 13-15, at 8 p.m. in Studio 6 of Swain Hall on Cameron Ave. at UNC-Chapel Hill. $10 ($5 students, $8 seniors). 919/969-7121 or wordshed@unc.edu. http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/welcome.html.

& 4/3/03

CORRECTION: Music Credit for Accomplices

Kevin Darbro, who is credited with writing the “original score” for “Accomplices” (Wordshed Productions/Ghost & Spice Productions, March 6-16), writes: “… [O]nly small bits of two of my pieces were used at the beginning and end of ‘One For the Road,’ which was my favorite play on paper of all the bits. It was the jarring piano stuff. As there were many other pieces of other folks’ music in the show that [director] Jay [O’Berski] chose, I felt the credit was embarrassingly overblown. I just want to set the record straight.” Consider it done, Kevin.