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Stage Review : An Inviting 'Bar Off Melrose'

February 28, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Bar talk: Are you meeting someone here? What sign are you? My funny Valentine, sweet comic Valentine . . . . See that woman near the piano? That used to be Frances Carson.

"The Bar Off Melrose" is fun, even when it falters. The original idea was to find a format to bind together a series of sketches written by members of Oliver Hailey's playwrights' lab. But the format, in Bill Cort's staging for the Melrose Theatre, has taken on a life of its own, to the point where it holds up the weaker sketches.

We are in a bar off Melrose. Its decor--glass brick and leatherette--hasn't changed much since the 1940s. (Lee Fischer designed it.) Some of the customers are probably the same too. It's not a trendy bar. It's just a place to have a drink and, perhaps, strike up a conversation. Do you come here often?

The evening has two stages. Act I is Happy Hour, when people are winding down from the office. Act II is Last Call, when people are going home. We eavesdrop on 15 stories, some of which sound like life and some of which sound like writing class.

But the 40 actors telling the stories give us recognizable men and women, and it's enjoyable to watch them come and go, as people do in a real bar. Director Cort regulates the flow like a good headwaiter, aided by Joseph Haggart's unstressed lighting. (Haggart's only coup comes at the end, where the lights bounce up, sending the customers home. It violates the mood, but clinches our sense of being in a real place.)

Somebody--Hailey, probably--has also done a nifty job interweaving the sketches, so it's hard to say where one ends and the next begins. The evening seems to be on one skein, although it's really bits and pieces. An earlier Hailey lab show, "A.M./P.M.," felt like a revue. This feels like a play.

Its lesson isn't too different from that of "The Iceman Cometh" at the Doolittle: People need their pipe dreams. Its tone, though, is lighter. And some of the pipe dreams come true. Marie Windsor--yes: \o7 the\f7 Marie Windsor--plays a 1940s movie star with a teensy drinking problem who is trying a comeback via Equity Waiver theater, and by closing time it seems that she just might make it.

Terry Kingsley-Smith was the author here, and if some of his lines are hokey, it's the kind of hoke that still sells tickets. "What kind of drink do I look like to you?" Windsor asks the young barkeep (Ben Mittleman) in that musky voice of hers. "A tall one--that's for sure," he answers. It's pure Late Show, but it fits.

In general, though, it's the less stylized sketches that ring true. Dana Gladstone's vignette of the fellow telling his old girlfriend that he has found another woman is so delicately observed that an old situation becomes new. The disclosure is no big tragedy--the two haven't seen each other for some time--but there's a sting in it, especially for her. It also has its funny, conspiratorial side--these two know each other better than their spouses ever will. Beautiful writing and beautiful acting from Terri Hoyos and Stephen Pershing.

This sketch leaves you some room to wonder about its characters. So does Pamela Chais' "The Chanteuse," in which Kathleen Hughes plays a lady who goes from piano bar to piano bar, not making pickups but singing "My Funny Valentine." That's just odd enough to be true, and actress Hughes conveys the satisfaction of the true artiste as she ends the song, finally on the right note.

Other sketches are too odd, too clever. Hailey bravely contributes a vignette of his own, in which a nebbish (Nick Angotti) forces everyone in the bar to strip so that the woman of his dreams (Peggy Pope) will have to strip as well. Stranger things are reported in the paper every day, but would a woman put in this predicament be touched by her suitor's ardor, as Pope seems to be?

At moments like this, "The Bar Off Melrose" suggests not so much life in a bar as the kind of shaggy-dog stories that get told in bars. But even when a sketch seems dubious, there's the hope that there'll be something more credible going on in a few minutes at another table.

And, overall, there's the ebb and flow of the place (you wouldn't call it a joint), with waitress Jeanine Anderson making sure that everybody's taken care of, and piano player David Rambo remembering everybody's old favorites. (Anne Correa sings a new favorite, "My Brilliant Career.")

You can even go up for a drink during intermission. You'll discover that the booze is sparkling cider, and that's the relationship of this show to Serious Drama. It's a gorgeous stunt, though, with some real writing going on at least part of the time, and some real acting almost all of the time. "The Bar Off Melrose" could become an institution.

'THE BAR OFF MELROSE'

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