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"Circle Mirror Transformation" and "The Lady With All the Answers"

WHAT "Circle Mirror Transformation"

WHERE Playwright's Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

INFO $50; 212-279-4200;

BOTTOM LINE: A playwright to know

Annie Baker is rapidly becoming one of my favorite playwrights nobody knows. Two seasons ago, she had a brief run with "Body Awareness" - a funny, original and humane look at the slippery profundities of appearance and the jargon of gender studies.

Now "Circle Mirror Transformation" (which cries out for a better title) takes on the squirm-inducing psychodrama of theater games at an adult creative drama class at a Vermont community center. Again, she embraces her characters and their awkward circumstances with the sort of humor that comes from very clear eyes and a generous spirit.

The serious comedy is at Playwrights Horizons' second stage in an acutely observed production directed by Sam Gold.

Five expert actors - Peter Friedman, Reed Birney, Deirdre O'Connell, Tracee Chimo and Heidi Schreck - unfurl characters over a six-week course in a dance studio. These are not one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B plot devices. Instead, they are peculiar in the oblique and blunt ways of real people.

Then there is the structure, almost two hours of exercises and fragments of relationships. What first seems like an act of courageous folly grows into bold and engrossing storytelling.

Ann Landers, to the letter

WHAT "The Lady With All the Answers"

WHERE Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

INFO $40-$50; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE modest throwback well done

There wasn't really an Ann Landers, a gold-standard of syndicated advice columnists in America's newspapers. But for decades, there was an Eppie Lederer, and she looked and talked exactly like the woman resurrected onstage at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Judith Ivey.

"The Lady With All the Answers" is a modest, one-person throwback to a time when 900 people a day wrote letters to a self-invented Chicago institution.

Playwright David Rambo has her chatting at us on a night in 1975. She is writing the hardest column of her life, the one about her own divorce, because, as she tells her faithful readers, "you had to hear it from me."

She is alone in her well-appointed apartment, dressed in full rich-lady regalia, despite the hour. In a bouffant the color of copper wire, Ivey nails the tough-cookie, good-sport persona with which Landers guided millions through social upheaval from 1955 until she died in 2002. Like the woman, the play knows what it wants to do and does it with friendly efficiency.

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