Seattle Repertory Theatre stages Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a play about five people in a New England college town who turn out for a creative-drama class.

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THEATER REVIEW |

“Man is a make-believe animal,” observed the critic William Hazlitt, “[who] is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.”

“Circle Mirror Transformation,” by the rising young playwright Annie Baker, embraces that sentiment.

In this cleverly conceived comedy-drama, five people in a New England college town turn out for a creative-drama class at a community center. Each has a different backstory, a different reason for being there.

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Over six weeks, they engage in group trust and gestalt-style role-playing exercises that can look absurd if you’re not doing them — as Baker well knows, and mines for comedy.

Yet spurred on by their eager teacher Marty (Gretchen Krich), these people also confront and reveal themselves by pretending to be other than who they are — and isn’t that one of the great paradoxes of drama?

“Circle Mirror Transformation” (the title spoofs the names of such exercises) won lavish praise Off Broadway, and an Obie Award.

I’m not quite so enthralled, particularly when the satire gets precious and the pacing is slack and indulgent. Despite such lapses, Baker is clearly a comer. She applies a freshness to what could have been a hackneyed sitcom setup, or a lampoon of artsy-fartsiness.

The 90-minute assemblage of more than 30 short, telling scenes, from many angles, gets more involving and shrewdly humane as the characters emerge from their cocoons and the group dynamics shift.

Directed by Andrea Allen, on Matthew Smucker’s set of a typical all-purpose classroom at a rec center, the strong Rep cast taps the play’s sly snippets of dialogue, but also what’s going on between the lines.

Krich fully expresses Marty’s warmth, sincerity, naiveté, and her shock when (no surprise to us) her marriage comes under harsh scrutiny.

As her seemingly genial husband, James, Peter A. Jacobs has less to work with. But his demeanor and body language speak volumes about midlife male restlessness.

In the flashiest role, that of loopy ex-actress and class siren Theresa, excellent Elizabeth Raetz is a limber, catlike Jezebel — whose insecurity bleeds through her bravado.

The play evolves too slowly, after too many drama exercises, for my taste. But throughout one can savor the subtle work of Anastasia Higham, a study in adolescent awkwardness and veiled distress as the perceptive teenager, Lauren. (She aces the show’s funniest, most self-mocking line: “Are we going to be doing any real acting?”)

And as Schultz, whose process of self-discovery is the most vividly realized, Michael Patten is a wonder.

A lonely, shy, guileless carpenter, Schultz throws himself into the class. He risks (as all actors do) self-exposure, heartbreak, ridicule. But with pain, there’s gain.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com