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Stage Review : 'On The Verge': A Trek Through The Future

December 10, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

C hronokinesis . Polytopian. Anthropophagi. Playwright Eric Overmyer is into words. Not so much the sense of them as the sound of them.

They don't have to be fancy words. The highlight of Overmyer's "On the Verge" at Taper, Too, is a list of junk phrases since the 1950s: prime time, Silly Putty, patty melt, melt-down.

One melt-down to go! Who's tonight's guest host? Why it's Bebe Rebozo! Fellow collectors of American language (an earlier Overmyer play was called "Native Speech") will enjoy the word play in "On the Verge," but may wish that Overmyer had put in more time on the plot.

Three lady explorers from the 1880s (Paddi Edwards, Libby Boone, Susan Barnes) find themselves on a trek through the future, stopping finally at 1955, which they rather enjoy. The balm of the Jacuzzi! The yumminess of Cool Whip! But it's not enough for their leader, Edwards, who knows there are even more wonders to be found ahead. Onward, ever onward! End of story.

Well, it's a start. But a really satisfactory imaginary universe (as in "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Phantom Tollbooth") is imagined in far greater detail than the vague otherwhere of "On the Verge."

The fun for the viewer is to get the lay of the land and compare it with the customs back home. One would expect a play about three scientific-minded ladies to be especially scrupulous about this. But Overmyer's trio behaves more like tourists than scientists, drifting through this terra incognita rather than testing it.

It's not until the second act that they light anywhere. You could say the same about Dorothy and the Emerald City, of course, but Dorothy had some significant adventures on the Yellow Brick Road. The most interesting thing that happens to these three is that they stumble onto some wondrous "fossiles from the future," including a silvery compact disc--and that's mostly a design effect.

Overmyer subtitles his play "The Geography of Yearning," but it's exactly its geography that's shaky, including its psychological geography. It can't be an accident that the inhabitants of Terra Incognita are all male (except for a flash of Madame Nhu), but why this is so isn't explained.

Are we to see them as symbols of male oppression? But from beginning to end, our wandering ladies seem free to go where they please, even to leave the comforts of '55, if they like. Since Overmyer is no dope, one is willing to believe that there are some cunning stratagems woven into the play, but at Taper, Too, it's hard to see them.

Perhaps Craig Noel's production later this winter at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego will offer a more specific sense of what "On the Verge" is about, besides its author's quickness with words. Jackson Phippin's staging at Taper, Too, is cute as a button, with addlepated sets and costumes by Larry Fulton and Susan Denison and gently goofy music by Roger Trefousse, somewhere between salon music and ragtime.

Barnes, Boone and Edwards seem to enjoy trekking through time together, but the first two are a little tentative about Overmyer's language. "A troll's troll! How droll! But he's not quite Robert Lowell!" The key is to plunge in, as Edwards does.

James McDonnell has great fun with the male Terra Incognitans, who include a not-too-abominable snowman, a teen-age gas monkey, a Vegas-style nightclub owner and a supercool dude named Mr. Coffee. Archeological question: Was Cool Whip really around in 1955? 'ON THE VERGE'

Eric Overmyer's play, presented by Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at Taper, Too. Director Jackson Phippin. Music composed and conducted by Roger Trefousse. Choreography Gary Mascaro. Scenic design Larry Fulton. Costumes Susan Denison. Lighting Liz Stillwell. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Mireya Hepner. With Susan Barnes, Libby Boone, Paddi Edwards, James McDonnell. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Closes Dec. 22. John Anson Ford Cultural Center, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East. (213) 410-1062.

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