Live Bait Theater.

The telethon is in full swing, with emcee Bobby Astor shepherding a motley parade of entertainers through their paces, jerking tears and donations with all their smarmy might. But tonight there’s a dissenter in the ranks: Jane Piercy, a young woman in a wheelchair who declares Astor’s spectacle to be counterproductive to achieving the goals he espouses. With his empire of good will threatened by this whistle-blower, Astor sets out to disarm her by any means necessary–intimidation, bribery, appeasement, and seduction.

Those who saw Susan Nussbaum’s 1992 Mishuganismo already know her sentiments regarding charity fund-raisers that rely on an image of the disabled as helpless, to be assisted but not integrated into “normal” society. Telethon, written by Nussbaum and William Hammack, is not a facile, one-sided rant but a nicely balanced dialogue between two fiercely committed crusaders, permitting us to decide for ourselves who’s right or wrong–or how right or wrong, since both make cogent, if sometimes self-serving, arguments.

Russ Flack’s gloriously overdone Astor and Jane Blass’s quietly intense Piercy lead a versatile seven-member troupe playing a variety of gen-

eric Hollywood schnorrers–most notably Brad Boehmke’s sycophantic second banana, Tom Mladic’s pit-bull comedian, and Gavin Witt’s refreshingly dignified TV journalist as deus ex machina. Though still in previews on the night that I attended, Telethon delivered plenty of laughs while raising important questions.