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On Theater: A remedial romp in Laguna

There's a pitched battle of wits — and wills — going on at the Laguna Playhouse, where Lissa Levin's riotous comedy "Sex and Education" is eliciting laughs by the carload.

In this highly literate, yet wildly raunchy, exercise, an overly dedicated teacher — on her last day before chucking it all for a career in real estate — endeavors to hammer home one more lesson to a lanky jock whose sights are set on a pro basketball career and, more immediately, losing his virginity with a cute cheerleader firmly clinging to hers.

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With Playhouse veteran Andrew Barnicle (the theater's artistic director for nearly two decades) firmly in command, "Sex and Education" chalks up one punch line after another as the pair assault each other from decidedly disparate vantage points. The instructor holds the trump card — a passing grade the athlete needs in order to catch a free ride to the University of North Carolina, fame and fortune.

Wielding that card with a dedication of Hitlerian proportions is a familiar face to viewers of TV's "Newhart" and "Designing Women," Julia Duffy. It's her last day at the blackboard, but she's not going gently into that good new career as she skillfully drills into a seemingly dry hole of knowledge.

A graphically obscene note passed from the jock (Nick Tag, in his professional stage debut) to his girlfriend (the delightful Alexandra Johnston) sets the key story line in motion. Duffy intercepts it and orders Tag to clean it up – grammatically, that is – before she'll give him the passing grade his future requires.

Thus ensues a ribald confrontation singed by purple prose as Duffy, stressing her character's intellectual superiority, strives to impart a final lesson in basic English to the jock, who couldn't care less. Punctuating this exchange is cheerleader Johnston's enthusiastic encouragement.

What elevates Levin's comedy from a procession of punch lines to a skillfully crafted exercise is the intellectual gap between the two major characters. Each hits the other with his or her best shot, and both are wildly off target as they strive for connection.

The scenic design of Trefoni Michael Rizzi — a classroom positioned at the center of a basketball court — is quite effective. Jim Prodger's costumes, and Don Guy's lighting effects also serve the production well.

All three actors offer strong interpretations and, interestingly, all dedicate their performances to their high school English teachers. The show turns both sex and education into gold mines for comedy at the Laguna Playhouse.

By Tom Titus