Stewart Parker's "Spokesong" is a popular show this year. The Old Globe did it in San Diego in February and now the Pasadena Playhouse has it on display as the concluding production of its initial three-play season. It was never a play that brought down the rafters, so how come all the attention?
Perhaps it's a reflection of our times--opting for a lulling approach to problems rather than a scrutinizing one. "Spokesong," which purports to deal with the political strife in northern Ireland (the play is set in Belfast in the early '70s), does it with a smoothing rather than excoriating hand.
It is a gentle vaudeville, pitting the past against the present with flashbacks, a Trick Cyclist (an emcee of sorts, played by Alan Shearman) and a free-wheeling sense of humor, punctuated by the music of Jimmy Kennedy.
No, the story is not profound, but it can be seductive, telling of Frank (Murphy Dunne) who runs a bicycle shop in Belfast inherited from his grandfather. Business is lousy, but Frank's a dreamer, closer to the turn-of-the-century ethos of his idealized grandparents (Gregory Itzin and Anna Mathias) than to his own exploding world. Bring back the bicycle, he believes, and you bring back sanity.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 16, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 6 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Gregory Itzin was pictured with Anna Mathias in Monday's review of "Spokesong" at the Pasadena Playhouse. He was misidentified as Tom Ashworth.
Frank's obsessive romance with the two-wheeler is rivaled only by his absorption in Daisy (Laura Blainey), a pragmatic schoolteacher as aware of the harsh realities of her time as she is charmed by Frank's ingenuousness. Inject the unexpected return from London of Frank's brother Julian (Tony Maggio), a product of urban ruthlessness with ulterior motives that include an eye for Daisy--and you have the stirrings of a play.
All of which would work--and have--if the right balance of song and banter were achieved. At the Playhouse, the setting is grand (a bicycle shop circular as a wheel, imported from the Old Globe production where it had been designed by Robert Blackman), but the song is mirthless and the banter forced.
The problem lies largely with the Trick Cyclist, who is entrusted with setting the pace and temper of the piece. Shearman (a Low Moan Spectacular comedian with a distinguished record) seems uneasy in the part. From the opening moments when, instead of dazzling us with his footwork he chooses to clown it up as a unicyclist who can't master the art, we're off and running on the wrong track.
"Spokesong" is a fragile play. Its effectiveness depends on a precise infusion of lyricism and wit mixed with a very deft hand. The hand of director Lewis Arquette is simply too heavy. He has a lovely Frank in the easygoing Dunne, who sings as sweetly as he acts, and a nasty enough Julian in Maggio. Itzin turns in a respectable performance as grandfather Francis (a role he'd played at the Globe), but the women could be livelier--Mathias feistier as grandma Kitty and Blainey, a recent relacement as Daisy, a shade or two brighter.
It's a matter of tempo that here needs serious revving up--especially Shearman's. The production feels underrehearsed, a complaint heard all season about this theater. And while it's terrific to have the Playhouse active again, a recommendation for next year is longer approaches.
Plays, like other stews, need cooking time on slow burners. Performances have to meld. It's a process that can't be rushed.
The management is already consulting its audience on selections for next season and the choices are interesting. Now that the shakedown cruise is almost over, let's see more time (and money) devoted to preparation.
'SPOKESONG' A play by Stewart Parker with music Jimmy Kennedy presented by the Pasadena Playhouse. Executive director Robert L. Siner. Artistic director Jessica Myerson. Director Lewis Arquette. Sets Robert Blackman. Lighting Paulie Jenkins with Ilya Mindlin. Costumes Kendra Cunningham. Make-up and hair Claude Diaz. Properties Peggy Ebright. Musical director Murphy Dunne. Choreography Gregory Itzin. Production stage manager Thomas White. Stage manager Mary K. Klinger. Cast Laura Blainey, Murphy Dunne, Gregory Itzin, Tony Maggio, Anna Mathias, Alan Shearman. Musicians Mark Ross, Mike Phelan, Jay Spears, Dean Andre. Performances at 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena run Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $13-$25 (818) 356-PLAY.