"Professor Bernhardi" is said to be Arthur Schnitzler's only "problem play," a work that dealt with burning issues (anti-Semitism) and stubbed enough Viennese toes (mainly those of anti-Semites) to get the play banned in their town. But "problem play" has another connotation: a production that can't get off the ground.
In Martin Magner's staging at the Harmon Avenue Theatre, problems abound.
Foremost among them, and one plaguing all the productions under review in this week's column, is a thoroughly unprepared, under-rehearsed cast. William Sargent casually walks through the title role, a Jewish doctor accused of improprieties in dealing with a Catholic priest trying to administer last rites.
But Sargent is the paragon of dramatic tension when compared to Ted Toll as one of Bernhardi's few allies. So are Stu Levin as one of his many enemies and Jack Manning as the priest, who comes to a circuitous and unconvincing understanding with the doctor.
Last Saturday, lines were not merely muffed, they were forgotten. Schnitzler's extremely prosaic text--and one of his least stage-worthy dramas (translated by Carl R. Mueller)--proved too monumental and unmanageable for Magner's ensemble. A play as rich in ideas as "Bernhardi" demands thinking actors to test those ideas against the heat of a stage and an audience. All that's here is inertia.
Of no help are Gary L. Wissmann's bland set of stand-up flats and low-budget props and Robert R. Smulling's inexpressive, unflattering lights.
Performances at 522 N. La Brea Ave. are Fridays and Saturdays, 8:30 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 23. (213) 467-5191.
Another "problem play" is Langston Hughes' "Mulatto," at the Theatre of Arts. Again, a dim work by an often-luminous literary voice. And, again, a completely inept staging, under the direction of Ed Arnold.
Bert's (Don Cunningham) problem is that he was born of a black mother and servant (Ernestine McClendon) and a white, paternalistic landowner (Jack Frankel). Bert fights to free himself from both of them.
He is trapped between races and eras. This is Georgia in the 1930s. The plantations aren't quite dead, and the civil rights movement hasn't been born. The atmosphere is pure tragedy.
Long expositional passages, character setups and comic stereotypes are hardly what this tragedy needs. And though McClendon's monologues of sorrow and premonition are ancient Greek in length, they are not Greek in excellence nor impact.
Cunningham and Frankel lack all sense of their characters' complexities (Hughes may not have fleshed them out, but they are there nonetheless), and seem to have had no directorial guidance. The uncredited set, cramped as it is into one of the tiniest of local stages, suggests an apartment more than an imperial manor.
Performances at 4128 Wilshire Blvd. are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 2. (213) 281-9752.
There's a show that leads into the cobwebbed and musty murder mystery, "The Spider," at Variety Arts Center's Masquers Theatre. It's the kind of parade of variety acts that has been the staple of this theater for years, and a couple of the acts--Stephanie Hodge's hip stand-up routine about the sexual wars and Lisa Jo Albaum singing a dark ditty called "La Mort de Pigeons" ( sic )--keep the early part of the evening afloat.
Then someone pulls the plug.
Fulton Oursler's and Lowell Brentano's "Spider" is only for stage buffs with some curiosity for typical genre work of '20s Broadway. Magic tricks and seances mix with silly detective shenanigans and a stage murder to produce a spectacularly awful concoction, undercooked by director Bill Burger. Cooper Anderson's detective sours things considerably, but no one in the cast is above the amateurish.
Since the audience members are all murder witnesses, no one is allowed to leave until the case is solved. "But Inspector," Naylon Mitchell's house manager pleads, "You can't do that! These people paid to see a show!"
Sometimes, house managers make good critics.
Performances at 940 Figueroa St. are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 22. (213) 623-9100.
Craig Childress' "Animal Games," we are warned, is a work in progress. It is, above all, a work not ready for a paying audience. Neither are director Lloyd Battista's actors at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre.
What starts off as a quirky, working-class comedy that might have been written by a student of Beth Henley veers off into the incredible. Why is Liz (Cyndi Eyman) so obsessed with men in animal suits? Why does Thomas (Peter DeLuise), who pitches fast-food chicken in a chicken suit, keep his on all the way up to Liz's apartment?
A grotesque subplot involving Liz's working buddy (Vanda Barra) and a blunt-edged bigot (Robert Evans Collins) only adds pressure to the already strained comedy, until Liz's inexplicably pathetic behavior dares an audience to escape the theater.
Childress falls back on the old cliches of 11th-hour revelations in attempting to restore some humanity to his story. But it is woefully little, painfully late. Most painful of all is Eyman, whose overacting betrays a lack of judicious direction. DeLuise manages some affecting moments that pass by and are gone.
Performances at 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. are Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 7. (213) 466-1767.