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Stage Review : 'Help Wanted': Uneven Works On Unemployed

December 28, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

While other houses are offering "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol," the Los Angeles Theatre Center does an anti-CIA psychodrama, followed by a German play about unemployment. How can you not love a theater like that?

But as somebody says in Franz Xaver Kroetz's "Help Wanted," "Art is the opposite of good intentions." There's no question that Kroetz's drama and Donald Freed's "The Quartered Man" are the kind s of plays that LATC should be doing. But are they good plays in themselves?

Colleague Sylvie Drake thought not the other morning, in regard to "The Quartered Man." "Help Wanted" is a mixed case, a collection of 10 playlets (from Kroetz's original 14) connected only by a theme: unemployment. The best of these vignettes are telling, the worst are forced and the rest of them seem to have lost something in the translation (by Gitta Honegger).

At the top of column A is "Homecoming," in which a wife who has lost her job (Elizabeth Ruscio) serves dinner to her husband (Dennis Redfield).

What makes this sketch so effective is that it gives the audience credit for being able to read a situation without having it spelled out. We hear Redfield making all the right sympathetic noises about his wife's bad luck, but we can see that he's almost gleeful to have her back in his power. A rightness has been restored to his universe.

Meanwhile, Ruscio smiles and smiles, but her mainspring has been broken. When she goes out on the balcony for a breath of air, Redfield jokes: "Don't jump." And she won't. She won't test herself against the world again either. Her life has ended.

All this is said between the lines. Compare "Christmas Death," where the out-of-work Hal Bokar steals an expensive bracelet for his wife (Sasha von Schoeler) on the grounds that the economy has stolen his job from him, and then proposes that they burn themselves to death like discarded Christmas trees in order "to bear witness" to their problems.

"Who cares about our deaths?" says von Schoeler. "So, who cares about our lives?" says Bokar. Not me, thought this viewer--all you've done for 10 minutes is whine. Compassion in the theater isn't the same thing as a concern for justice outside the theater. It has to be earned. This sketch doesn't earn it.

It's hard to believe that the same playwright wrote both vignettes. It's interesting to consider a sketch called "Poor Poet" in that light. It has Brent Jennings as a promising young writer defending himself on the phone against someone who wants him to get involved in the struggle against the system.

He argues that that's not his thing, that it goes against the "privacy" he needs as a writer. At the end of the sketch, his lady (Von Schoeler) forces him to see that he's simply scared of being blacklisted.

The viewer, however, finds himself oddly convinced by his phone argument (if not altogether convinced that actor Jennings has a good grasp of it). "Help Wanted" is at its best when Kroetz listens to his characters from a position of "privacy" and at its worst when he tells them what to say so that the audience will get the message.

At least once, Robert Harders' LATC staging transforms a "public" sketch into a "private" one, to its benefit. Redfield plays a man born in Nazi Germany. He watches a TV documentary on World War II while his wife (Ruscio) snoozes. He remembers that his father's loyalty to Hitler was based on the fact that Hitler rescued him from the shame of being unemployed.

But if Redfield is waking up to certain connections, he is physically falling asleep. The dreaminess is what makes it an experience, not a mini-lecture. "Last Judgment" on the other hand never stops being a corny parable (Von Schoeler and Bokar are two valiant bums demonstrating against the system by defacing stacks of fresh newspapers with paint).

Redfield and Ruscio definitely take the evening's acting honors, the latter particularly good in a monologue about a woman who takes a strange satisfaction in having developed breast cancer--"employment" at last.

It's less clear what she's after in "English as a Second Language," where she chatters seductively to a Haitian man (Jennings) who doesn't seem to understand anything she's saying. We suspect that at the end he'll turn out to have understood every embarrassing word, but he doesn't.

The point of this sketch may have got lost somewhere between here and West Germany, where these plays obviously originated, for all the attempt at LATC to Americanize them. It might have been better to have acknowledged their point of origin, or to have commissioned a sympathetic American playwright--Los Angeles' John Steppling would have been ideal--to produce a freer American version of them.

Succinctly designed (by Nicole Morin) and precisely lit (by Kathy A. Perkins), "Help Wanted" has a visual unity that belies the unevenness of its writing. It's a handsome package, but one feels it isn't Kroetz at full strength. The Cast Theatre's coming production of his "Request Concert" with Salome Jens should come closer to the mark. Meanwhile, it beats the Cratchits.

'HELP WANTED' Franz Xaver Kroetz's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Tranlsation Gitta Honegger. Director Robert Harders. Producer Diane White. Set and costume design Nicole Morin. Lighting design Kathy A. Perkins. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Dramaturg Mame Hunt. Production stage manager Charles McEwan. With Dennis Redfield, Elizabeth Ruscio, Hal Bokar, Sasha von Schoeler and Brent Jennings. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. Closes Jan. 12. Tickets $10-$20. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599.

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