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Stage Review : 'Don Juan,' A Bit Bedeviled

January 20, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

Is "Don Juan in Hell" a quartet?

In the standard staging, which was originated by a group called the First Drama Quartette, the actors wear formal clothes and use scripts propped on music stands to guide them through the play's most intricate passages, just as a string quartet would.

Nevertheless, if you believe that no single voice ought to be more important than the other three in a quartet, "Don Juan in Hell" doesn't fill the bill. By singling out Don Juan, the title tells us who the real star is. It's Don Juan who speaks most often, and most clearly, for George Bernard Shaw, the author. If this is a quartet, then Don Juan is a very domineering first violinist. Perhaps we ought to think of the piece as a one-movement concerto instead of a quartet.

It follows that the success of any production is disproportionately determined by the fellow who plays Don Juan. And this is where director Norman Cohen's otherwise glittering rendition of the First Drama Quartette concept (at Room for Theatre) falters: Henry Darrow isn't quite up to the job.

He looks right for the role. It's easy to see why women were so attracted to the don, back in his days as an earthly rake. He retains his youthful dimples, and his eyes can still sparkle with considerable charm. He maintains a courtly manner while addressing his former love, Dona Ana, and sometimes he even extends his gallant gestures to the Devil himself.

The problem is in Darrow's line readings. The role requires an almost superhuman fluency; the other characters are in awe of Don Juan's gift for gab. Darrow makes sense of most of what he's saying. Yet occasionally he swallows a phrase or clips off a word. When this happens, even if only once in the middle of one of his arias, it's enough to interrupt the flow ever so slightly--to distract the audience into thinking about words rather than meaning. And it happened more than once last Sunday.

Another distraction: Darrow referred to his script more visibly than the other actors did. His lines are admittedly much more plentiful--and difficult--than anyone else's, and an observer has no way of knowing whether he had any more time in which to learn them.

If he didn't, director Cohen should have insisted on it. For Don Juan, more than the other characters, ought to speak from his mind instead of his book. It's he who maintains that human beings should seek to become supermen through the strength of their minds and wills; when he appears to be less in command of what he's saying than the easy-come, easy-go folks who are satisfied with Hell, his argument is subtly diminished.

Darrow's vocal timbre doesn't sound particularly superhuman either; at one point Sunday he sounded hoarse. His low register was seductive enough but he couldn't quite muster the requisite power for his more impassioned moments.

His colleagues were in fine form.

Fresh off a long line of devilish grandfather roles, Harold Gould now tackles the grandest and most devilish old-timer of them all--Satan. It's such a splendidly alluring performance that one wonders if the ministers who have raised a stink about satanic rock-and-roll lyrics will mount a picket line at Room for Theatre.

We appreciate this Satan not because he begs for our sympathy. Indeed, as he dismisses those whose inferior tastes might lead them to prefer Heaven to Hell, he sounds like the snootiest, most imperious maitre d' in all of Beverly Hills.

No, it's the sheer strength of this devil's voice and manner that command our respect. He appears to be a man who knows exactly what he wants--and how to get it. This may not be what Shaw wanted--he described the devil as "enormously less vital than the woman"--yet it enriches the debate immeasurably. Nor is this devil imprisoned in hedonism. When he speaks of the everlasting pendulum between Heaven and Hell, we believe that he has swung across that pendulum himself many times. This is a devil for all seasons.

The other two roles aren't nearly as deep, but Cohen's actors strike the right notes.

Claudette Nevins has a fine gift for righteous indignation, which is what Dona Ana requires, and her eyes light up at the end of the show as she contemplates joining Don Juan's lonely quest. John Ingle's Statue is properly animated, now that he's free of his heavenly shackles. His chin thrusts upward, his eyebrows arch and his voice sounds like a blustery general's--though it's hardly the countertenor that the script prescribes.

Diana Eden has dressed everyone in gleaming white--and Gould's hair and beard match the costumes. Geoffrey Rinehart's lights and Jon Gottlieb's sound contribute a measure of otherworldliness, but no one tries to turn this into a special-effects movie.

It remains, always, an eminently civilized discourse on the pains and pleasures of being human. Humans who appreciate the bouncing ball of Shavian conversation should find something of worth in it.

Performances are at 12745 Ventura Blvd. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4:30 p.m. through Feb. 22, with the Feb. 8 performance at 7:30 instead of 4:30 p.m.; (818) 509-0459.

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