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Play Is A Mystery At The Court

May 12, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Gena Rowlands as the mother and Carol Kane as the daughter: How often do you get casting like that in Los Angeles small theater?

"A Woman of Mystery" at the elegant little Court Theatre on La Cienega also offers the best intermission spread in town, and not just on opening night. I particularly recommend the pate.

John Cassavetes' script--"play" doesn't quite apply--is another matter. Probably it is a pilot for the next Cassavetes/Rowlands movie. Probably on the screen the story will be clearer.

Rowlands is the woman of mystery: That's clear. She starts out as a bag lady. But then she gets taken up by some swells (Roy Brocksmith, Alan Stock) and she changes into a black cocktail dress. She wears it with such style that we begin to suspect she is really a rich dame who has dropped out. Why, though, would she drop back in?

Something about her daughter? But maybe Kane isn't her daughter. Or maybe she is the ghost of her daughter. Or maybe there were two daughters. Anyway, everywhere Rowlands looks, there's Kane--as a waitress, a flower girl, a party guest. Get out of my life, Rowlands says. But maybe she really wants her back in?

"A Woman of Mystery" leaves it to the viewer to decide what is really going on here, and that's fine. Pirandello's plays don't provide answers either. But they do leave you feeling that a real situation has been exposed, usually a rather painful one. "A Woman of Mystery" has no pain and little urgency. It's about itself--a group of actors having so much fun going in and out of "reality" that they don't realize that the rest of us have to be up in the morning.

The story is meant as Rowlands' spiritual journey from one place to another, but both ends of the journey are dim. She has various "encounters" along the way--in an unemployment line, a travel agency, a fancy restaurant--but these aren't so much encounters as random conversations. Now and then there's a vaudeville act to cover a scene shift. So much for structure.

The evening does offer us an extended visit with Rowlands. She makes about as convincing a bag lady as Lucille Ball did, but the notion of her as a bag lady is amusing. She's more at home as the backgrounds get upgraded, but it's not too clear why they get upgraded: the scene where the swells make her into a lady is missing.

There is, however, a scene where Rowlands silently rinses out some shirts, as fog rises from the stage. The image of the figure at the end of a smoky tunnel is identical to one used in Cassavetes' "Three Plays of Love and Hate" in 1981; it must have some meaning for him.

Rowlands is a strong presence. The program notes suggest that at the end her character has disconnected herself from all human contact. But the feeling is that of a valiant woman who will keep on going until she comes to a better place. One would like to see Rowlands in a real play--"Anna Christie," maybe, or even "Mother Courage."

Kane wears a variety of sharp-eyed faces with good humor; one would like to see her in a real play, too. One reason "A Woman of Mystery" doesn't feel like a real play is the strange way that the acting will flag between big moments, as if this was stuff that the camera would cover or the film editor would take care of later. Cassavetes and his actors have forgotten that on the stage, the clock is always going.

They give us the opposite of ensemble stage acting, where the actors are as closely wired as an old-fashioned string of Christmas tree lights and where no one would be caught dead not listening . These are film actors waiting for their moments, and shining quite nicely when they get them. But that's not theater.

One doesn't want to be too hard on Cassavetes. He's putting his own money down here, he has made sure that the production values are first-class (James Eric contributes a splendid set) and he is not patting himself on the back for doing theater in Hollywood--just doing it.

But what he's doing here is really little theater. "A Woman of Mystery" may be a useful first-draft for a later project, but it's awfully soft on its own. It would be useful for everyone involved to tackle a script with some bones in it.

'A WOMAN OF MYSTERY' John Cassavetes' play, at the Court Theatre. Director Cassavetes. Production design James Eric. Costumes Cathy Cooper. Lighting Grant Hogarth. Stage Manager Jordan Corngold. With Gena Rowlands, Carol Kane, Roy Brocksmith, Carol Arthur, Alan Stock, Janet Alhanti, Jean Field, Steve Moore, Whitey Roberts and ensemble. Performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Closes May 25. Tickets $10. 722 N. La Cienega Blvd. (213) 854-5495.

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