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Stage Reviews : Kennedy's 'The Session' Lacks Focus

May 29, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

If only James Kennedy would subject himself to serious editing, let someone else direct his work and carve the words less is more into his brain, we might have a major playwright on our hands.

The talent is there, but virtually obliterated by the total absence of restraint. Kennedy's latest opus, "The Session," which opened at Burbank On Stage over the weekend under the author's direction, is yet another of his maddeningly scattered, loud, rambling, elusive pieces, loaded with potential and in shambles for sheer lack of focus.

The piece emerged (both visibly and by Kennedy's acknowledgment) from an exciting set of acting-class exercises. The problem is, it hasn't developed nearly enough from there. Its unifying premise--a photo session with 12 eager young female models by a star photographer for some Playboy-style magazine--seems more an expedient than a motivating force.

The secret of his success is that photographer Tom (Christopher Pennock) captures something in these women that goes much deeper than skin. Aided by an officious assistant named Barbara (Joleen Decler), flashbacks of the Doors' Jim Morrison (Rick Dano) and the world's Marilyn Monroe (Bethany Owen), "The Session" attempts to show us just how Tom does it.

He does it at the top of his lungs, by behaving like your garden-variety drawing-room psychologist and by brow-beating and bullying the models, not physically but with words of lust and/or endearment.

(Here Kennedy toys perilously with stereotypical male attitudes that open a whole other parenthesis on the subject of this "Session"; for once, though, he's rescued by the lack of focus that saves it from ever being more than fleetingly objectionable.)

By the time Act II rolls around, the women (except Cynthia Pankala as June, the witch, who inexplicably wears a chaste pink bridesmaid's outfit) are ready to pose in various states of Frederick's of Hollywood undress (Carol Maloney is responsible for the infinite variety, the most stunning example of which is Tamara Taylor's slithery black lace see-through).

Each woman is decked out for the ultimate tryst--with the camera's searching, brutally unforgiving eye, which reveals a lot more than skin. The session becomes a long, rambling confessional in which the women expose their innermost confusions along with the flesh. Outside (and for no particular reason), the magazine's publisher paces the floor. Inside, Monroe becomes the icon (the standard by which all women are measured?). It is no accident that the play's final lines, spoken by her, are: "I thank God every day for that beautiful thing I walk around in--my body."

Celebratory words, or depressing ones in these days of Donna Rice and Gary Hart? In the end, "The Session" is your basic sexual fantasy collage--though not an ungenerous or unkind one. But it's also a big wallow in "love statements" and self-involvement drowning in its own unchecked profusion and noise.

Somewhere in there is a fairly unpersuasive message about self-confidence, androgyny, loving and being loved, but "The Session" feels more like the canonization of rank shallowness--a show for voyeurs and casting directors.

When the women at the end turn the tables and want to photograph the photographer--nude--Tom recoils in horror. "I have no heart," he screams, "just a horrible scar." The camera is his heart? It's too blatant. A good actor might pull this off, but not the screaming Pennock, who is the show's worst offender as an out-of-control Tom.

"In my studio I control the winds," he says. "If I want a full moon, I have a full moon. If I want storms, I get storms." There's the rub. If Kennedy has the slightest intention of going back to the drawing board, he should start over at a whisper , cut out an hour of sheer repetition and try to sort out what this all means--if anything.

Compounding the problems, Kennedy is staunchly loyal (a virtue) to too many undertalented performers (a drag). Decler is altogether too predictably efficient as Barbara and nothing else, and Dano is excessively overwrought as Morrison. Too much of the time the models come across as a bunch of terminally spoiled rejects of the "me" generation having tantrums. The real pity is that many of them are gifted but victimized by the rampant self-indulgence.

There's a pattern in Kennedy that refuses to change and no matter how rich the talent (very), there will be no growth without change. Kennedy's not young enough or new enough to be called promising indefinitely. Something's gotta firm up.

Performances at 139 N. Golden Mall in Burbank run Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until June 28. Tickets: $12, (818) 842-1072.

The Found Theatre production of "The Dead Accuse" in Long Beach is more notable for its intent than its achievement, but it marks the first time that a theater in this country has tackled the aftermath of the fall of Cambodia.

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