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Driving home, a young man notices a figure huddled in a phone booth near the Laundromat. As he draws closer, he recognizes his father, who refuses to emerge, despite his family's importuning. Asked why he's in the booth, the old man replies, reasonably, "Everybody's gotta be somewhere."

A comically existential father-son dialogue is the centerpiece of Jack Matthews's Taking Over The Family Business, one of eleven dramas selected for readings at Cleveland Public Theatre's 17th annual New Plays Festival, a showcase of experimental works by playwrights from across the country directed by Terence Cranendonk. A moderated discussion follows each reading, with the playwrights present to receive feedback.

In Matthews's play, the father's peculiar logic begins to affect his son, who is persuaded to succeed Dad in the booth. Human absurdity is a favorite subject for Matthews, 73, a novelist and Ohio University English professor. "The longer you scrutinize what we call rational behavior," he observes, "the less sure you are there's any sense to it." Business shares the bill this weekend with Einstein's Daughter, by New York playwright Catherine Rodgers, a mystery speculating on the fate of the daughter born to Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric before they married.

Cuyahoga River Anthology, by Cleveland poet Sara Holbrook, promises to be a festival standout. Modeled after Edgar Lee Masters's A Spoon River Anthology, the work is composed of a series of searing monologues based on conversations Holbrook heard while working for the beleaguered Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Anthology gives profound voices to welfare mothers, unemployed men, and children, as well as landlords, politicians, and policemen. Putting a human face on public housing, Holbrook's characters handily deconstruct stereotypes about the poor. One woman muses ironically: "Did you hear the one about the welfare mother?/She just having kids and having 'em, having 'em day after day/Just so's she can get more aid for dependent children? . . . What fool gonna have kids just to get her a measly ol'/$235 per month?/Oh, yeah/We all'a us gonna grow fat and sassy on that."

--Pamela Zoslov

The New Plays Festival runs from Friday, January 8 through Saturday, January 24 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave. Taking Over the Family Business will be performed Friday, January 8 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 10 at 2 p.m. Performances of Cuyahoga River Anthology are January 15 at 8 p.m. and January 17 at 2 p.m. See stage listings on page 31 for further show times. Admission is $8; call 216-631-2727 for more information.

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