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Stage Reviews : 'Garden'

November 14, 1986|CATHY DE MAYO

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and Edward Albee's 1967 drama "Everything in the Garden," playing at Saddleback College, is a case in point. But this production runs into problems making any intended parallels to today stick.

Twenty years ago, Albee focused his microscope on distorted American values in this caustic study of suburban life, writing about a call-girl ring made up of suburban housewives who want to bring in a little extra cash (tax-free, yet) to provide for life's essentials, such as private school tuition, country club dues and fresh caviar. His attack on life styles that promote form over substance and substitute materialism for morals takes on fresh resonance in contemporary times--times that offer slogans such as "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "The Difference Between a Man and a Boy Is the Price of His Toys" on bumper stickers, times in which yuppiedom has elevated conspicuous consumption to an art form.

But the comparison isn't quite that neat. There remains an unshakable residue left over from the 1960s that is distracting. It was a decade of exaggerations, and one that is difficult not to caricature. At Saddleback, the distractions start with the look of the production itself. Set designer Wally Huntoon and costume designer Charles Castagno have faithfully re-created the now-kitschy look of the '60s (remember pole lamps, bouffant flips, white lipstick and plastic go-go boots?), but it sparks a gleeful, wincing recognition that makes it all too easy to put distance between then and now.

Still harder to relate to are the '60s' attitudes that date the piece. The husband refuses to let his wife work, even part time; it would reflect poorly on his ability to provide for his family. And he bemoans housing prices in their neighborhood; they were forced to pay a whopping $40,000 for their attractive split-level home. That antiquated figure draws laughs, diminishing the impact of what lies ahead.

Beyond the schism created by the '60s' mind-set are pacing problems that also undermine the drama's credibility. Director Lynn Wells' cast never manages to capture the give-and-take rhythm of conversation between people who know each other well. There is an immediately recognizable rhythm between long-married couples and neighbors who are on good enough terms to drop in unannounced through the back door (as is the case here) that is missing in these performances. Instead, the dialogue is filled with pauses that call attention to themselves. The most effective portrayal is Ruth Cameron's Mrs. Toothe, the crisp British businesswoman whose "business" is procuring; Cameron makes her chillingly credible.

"Everything in the Garden" will play through Sunday at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. For information, call (714) 582-4656.

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