A.C.T. and Magic illuminate each other’s birthday

Clever, engaging and entertaining, Carey Perloff’s “Luminescence Dating” arrived Friday at the Magic Theater, the American Conservatory Theater artistic director’s play marking the first collaboration between the two organizations, each celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Perloff’s idea for the play came from a childhood experience of attending a lecture about a legendary statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love (Venus in Roman mythology), by Praxiteles, the great sculptor, active around 350 B.C. The 7-foot nude statue was much admired in its time, but disappeared soon, never to be found.

If you found an object that could be part of that missing treasure, you might use luminescence dating to place it in time. That scientific method involves heating dirt surrounding the object, and creating a flash of light, called thermoluminescence — which, in turn, provides an approximate age.

In the play, smoothly directed by Mark Rucker, an archeologist (played by A.C.T.’s René Augesen) is searching for the statue with a passion Aphrodite herself would approve. Her quest unfolds in the company of two colleagues, one (Stephen Barker Turner) being a love interest (i.e., “dating”), the other a gay buddy and best friend — played by fellow A.C.T. company member Gregory Wallace, in one of the finest and most assured comic performances of a distinguished career. The cast is rounded off by Ching Valdez-Aran, in her local debut, as the Greek poetry-reciting cleaning woman, who turns into a Dear Abby of an Aphrodite specter.

The fluent mix of science, intellectual repartee and sheer wit reminds the viewer of Perloff’s favorite playwright, Tom Stoppard, but it is more accessible, less complex than the British author’s plays. Perloff’s communication with the audience is immediate and effective, even if it requires some actual lecture scenes, information imparted as the characters teach an invisible class.

This “romantic thriller” works well as a suspense story — although it tends to buckle at the end under its own exaggerated weight — and its many comic touches create both guffaws and smiles. On the other hand, the scientific-historical-philosophical conundrum at the serious heart of the play doesn’t satisfy.

“This means SOMETHING,” the play keeps promising, but when that something is spelled out, rather laboriously, at the end, the response may well be, “Oh, OK,” in a kind of anti-catharsis. Still, getting there is more than half the fun in this well-performed quest for the elusive goddess of love.

Stage review

Luminescence Dating

Starring René Augesen, Stephen Barker Turner, Gregory Wallace, Ching Valdez-Aran

Written by Carey Perloff

Directed by Mark Rucker

Playing 8 pm. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 23; at the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco

Tickets $31-$45; contact (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

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