The Mark Taper has three actors with solid track records doing the current cabaret readings for its latest edition of Sundays at the Itchey Foot: Raye Birk, Carl Lumbly and Dakin Matthews. One and a half of them are wasted.
The bill, "Tales That Go Bump in the Night," is a collection of three scary stories, produced and nicely adapted by the Taper's Madeline Puzo. They are "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce and two by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" and "Berenice."
Poe wins. "Berenice" is a gem.
But back to the 1 1/2. Matthews, who has directed this three-pronged event, participates as an actor on a strictly peripheral level. Lumbly and Birk carry the bulk of the hourlong spook show, with Lumbly firing off only half his guns (he's too predictable and unscary) in his reading of "Valdemar," while Birk is a paragon of single-handed suspense in the sinister "Berenice."
Perhaps we have become inured to the horrific through repeated exposure to and exploitation by television and films. Can there be horror after "The Shining" or "Poltergeist" or "Friday the 13th" parts one through infinity?
Bierce's story of an indistinguishable "thing" (its precise identity is never divulged) that relentlessly torments and hunts down a man tends to make us smile and think of "The Blob." It's a preamble--sort of a feastie with a beastie.
Again, in the "Valdemar" case, a dead man who retains his human form for seven months through the workings of a mesmeric trance and then crumbles into a liquid mass of putrefaction when the trance is broken, evokes the gory images of "The Exorcist" and other state-of-the-ghoul special effects. It makes us laugh rather than shudder and Lumbly isn't comfortable with the story, no matter how emphatically he delivers it. He seems, in fact, too much in earnest.
Where Birk has it all over his teammates in his solo "Berenice" is that, instead of taking it all so seriously, he laughs with us.
In him we witness what we think is a moderate eccentric recounting a morbid little incident involving an obsession with a woman's teeth.
It takes us a while to determine that he is, of course, quite mad, but the time spent coming to that conclusion--and watching the artful Birk reveal it, smirk by smirk--is hugely entertaining.
And therein lies the trick to approaching such material: through a glass slyly, tongue-in-cheek. The rest of the program could definitely use more of this ironic edge, as well as better podium lighting--it might spare the actors from stumbling over the text, which they did noticeably Sunday.
Performances at 801 W. Temple St. run Sundays only at 5:30 p.m. through March 9, with doors opening at 4:30 p.m., (213) 972-7337. Food and beverages may be ordered before and after the show.