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Stage Review : Goodness Will Out In 'Gifted Child'

January 22, 1986|ROBERT KOEHLER

Performer Jane Anderson puts all of us--children and parents alike--through the wringer in her solo show, "How to Raise a Gifted Child," at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Of course parents want their kid to be gifted, and some, like Sylvia Gatch, insist upon it, despite all evidence to the contrary. People like this deserve a major-league ribbing, and Anderson delivers it. The title leads us to expect as much.

But that doesn't let Leslie, daughter of Sylvia and Mel, off the hook. We could have called her hippie phase--the only predictable moment in an otherwise irrepressibly inventive show. She changes her name to Serenity and names her own kid Sky, after giving birth to him in, let's say, a highly experimental procedure. Sylvia is funny, but Leslie is a joke.

Yet, none of the whimsical ideas and remarkable effects Anderson creates reduce her characters to mere social targets. The very structure of her piece expresses the cyclical pattern of life and death, and how the sins of our lineage are passed on, through us, to the next generation. Nor for a moment is this a lament. Instead, Anderson's work is a satire textured in lavender, not dark colors.

It's important, for instance, that Sylvia the stage mother not be a stage monster--spying out an ICM agent at one of Leslie's auditions, shoving her in the arms of an over-the-hill Russian ballet teacher. Leslie's the only thing in her life, so devotion--even her brand of it--seems natural. Mel is busy trying to outdo Rube Goldberg in his dreams while running his dry-cleaning business. Not much of a father, but we like him.

This is a notable and consistent quality in Anderson's personae: Each individual's seed of human goodness does sprout to the surface, sooner or later. Even the truck-driving beer guzzler who supplied Leslie with the sperm for Sky seems to care where his particular gift went and how it all turned out. A less careful artist could have tripped on the mine fields of condescension and snickering with such a type. For Anderson the writer, there are no types.

This applies even more to Anderson the performer. She adds layers of comedy and subtlety onto her own writing, as if the performance is another level of writing. The way Sylvia slides her glasses off her nose to spy on somebody, or the manner in which the adult Leslie unconsciously imitates her mother are just two items from Anderson's deep, well-stocked bag of physical acting. With Casey Kramer's direction as a streamlining guide, the character changes begin to take on the form of an actor/writer's magic show.

In this way, the audience is put in the position of remembering what it was like to be a kid held in the thrall of a magician. Anderson's slides and the ingenious set design she developed with Ray Finnell work in this way too: It's a Sesame Street world in recollection, full of innocence and the unexpected.

Performances at 1089 Oxford Ave. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., through Feb. 15; (213) 466-2226.

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