If like me you believe that Laurie Wolf is a local treasure, you won't want to miss her current monologue at Manbites Dog Theater, 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian (playing Nov. 26 and 27 as part of the Other Voices Series and Don't Ask Don't Tell 2005). Even if the piece doesn't quite measure up to In the Outfield, Wolf's previous foray into performance memoir, this "eclectic collection of original monologues" (as the playbill has it) has much to say about the dubious prospect of aging in a nation where the fate of the unborn is of greater concern than the lifelong well being of the person that fetus becomes.
50! is more diffuse than its predecessor, less tightly organized; and there are moments when you feel Wolf's control of her material ebbing. She is less effective in her frequent "stand-up" bits than when embodying a character — her own, or someone else's — and the piece lacks anything like the overpowering image of the oversized hand smacking her across the face in In the Outfield, a bit of business so shockingly original it seared the brain.
Wolf's two great strengths as a performer — her mimetic skills and her Lily Tomlin-like, chameleon ability to assume an exquisitely observed persona — are so uniquely her own you may wish the piece contained more of them and fewer verbal digressions, which the performer herself seems less certain of. It's a tic I recall from In the Outfield: when Wolf re-creates the birth of her Hebrew name, makes something hilarious out of an excruciating mammography session, channels two hospice residents — the wheelchair-pushing Nelly and the toothless "Wild Bill" — or re-creates the wholly imagined activities with which her dying father fills his "terminal restlessness," the evening takes breathtaking flight. But when talking, as herself, her speech alternately rushes and stalls, her audibility drops, and her extraordinary command of stage and self falter appreciably.
Other segments, in which Wolf engages in combative wordplay with medical assessors and jingo-spouting tinheads, are meant to fizz like nerve-frayed 21st-century equivalents of "Who's on First." But Wolf's foil, Jared Axelrod, lacks the speed and voluble timing she employs, and the dialogues sputter just where they ought to soar.
That said, anyone who can coin a phrase like "The Wicked Witch of the West Wing" to describe the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who can refer to herself as "the best-dressed guy in my synagogue," or who can observe, as Laurie Wolf does of her father's labors with a bowl of oatmeal, "I never knew how much breath it took, just to chew food" is a person eminently worth spending time with.
Manbites Dog Theater presents 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian Friday-Saturday, Nov. 26-27, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $15. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.