To Relax and Laugh, at the Lunar Cabaret, and Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski, at the Lunar Cabaret. When you consider that understanding what makes humans tick is an impossible goal, writer Barrie Cole’s progress on this question is nothing short of awe inspiring. What’s characterized her work to date, besides simple hard-nosed obstinacy, is the way she revels in the English language, juxtaposing words as both a performer and a playwright to evoke double meanings and the contradictions inherent in daily existence.

The manipulation of language remains the centerpiece of her latest work, part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival. To Relax and Laugh explores slowly but surely a therapist-client relationship that devolves into a series of social calls. Time has somewhat muted Cole’s righteous indignation: traces of her cynicism seep through the cracks of this piece, but it occupies a more intimate, comfortable space than most of her earlier work, if only because of the warmth of Julie Caffey’s and Laura Hugg’s finely etched performances. Caffey is especially good as the fruity unlicensed therapist: she spends more time stroking her long gray braid than offering useful counsel. It’s a simple gesture that speaks volumes about our morbid emphasis on self-presentation and deep-seated mistrust of psychotherapy. What Cole ultimately inspires here is audience exhaustion, not boredom–and it takes a playwright of no small resources to walk that fine line.

Sue Cargill–author of last year’s Rhino Fest hit Chameleon With a Stigmata–spends an inordinate amount of time evoking tone in her contribution this year, Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski. She does well at drawing parallels between Polanski’s oeuvre and the feverish dreams and paranoid delusions of her characters, a demure gift-shop clerk and a manic singing-telegram delivery man. Both are trapped in downward spirals, but there’s no true depth to them in this 50-minute piece. And the play’s ending–a conventional walk into the sunset that awkwardly references Chinatown–couldn’t be a bigger cop-out. With so many choices available to her, it’s strange that Cargill made none at all.