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Stage Review : 'Dandy' Effort At Empathy

July 28, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

In "Handy Dandy," a nun who demonstrates against nuclear weapons is brought before a by-the-book judge on trespassing charges. Los Angeles first saw the play in 1984 as a benefit for the nuclear freeze cause.

For those of us who didn't see it then, this sounded like a recipe for agitprop. And that title--huh? Whatever it meant, it connoted a quick, efficient fix-it process. This did not bode well for a play that supposedly grappled with the complex questions of life and death in the Nuclear Age.

Now that the Pasadena Playhouse is presenting the first full-fledged local production of "Handy Dandy," we can see that some of our fears were groundless. William Gibson's play is hardly agitprop.

In fact, "Handy Dandy" isn't about any such topical issues. For a theatrical examination of the nuclear arms race, see "A Walk in the Woods" at La Jolla Playhouse.

No, "Handy Dandy" is about something much more conventional: the process through which two people of radically different backgrounds and perspectives can make contact and influence each other.

The title was taken from "King Lear." Lear used it to comment on the interchangeability of roles. "Change places," wrote Shakespeare, "and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" According to the footnotes in my edition of "Lear," "handy dandy" meant "take your choice."

With all due respect to Shakespeare, the title is still misleading. Such changes do not usually take place so quickly. But Gibson's play isn't quite as simplistic as it sounds. And the performances of James Whitmore and Audra Lindley go a long way toward disguising how conventional the play's subject is.

True, Gibson did stack the deck in favor of his nun. She's a woman who overcame a wretched youth and found salvation in service to others--including, yes, a blind dog. Her adversary, the judge, is a man whose extracurricular life is in shambles. His primary personal goal is "getting through life without pain."

Yet the nun eventually respects the judge's view of the law. And, though the judge becomes so attentive to the nun that he revokes her sentence and personally takes charge of her welfare, he doesn't become a convert to her cause.

Near the end of the play, the judge announces that he has started visiting the nuclear plant in question. On opening night, some members of the audiences broke into applause at this point. It sounded as if they were anticipating that the judge's next words would reveal that he had actually joined the picket line.

Fortunately, they were wrong. This meeting of two minds looks easy, but not that easy.

Gibson also provides little details to leaven the self-conscious soul-searching that otherwise might sink the play. There is an exchange about Cuban cigars that's especially charming.

Lindley is a big help in making sure the scales don't tip too far in the nun's favor. When she breezes into the courtroom in the first act, calling everyone in sight by their first names, she comes off as smug and flip, not refreshingly informal.

We don't really appreciate the depth of her character until later, after she has revealed the less savory details of her past and makes a convincing claim that her own faith is beginning to wane. In other words, Lindley doesn't draw on our stock of sympathy until her character has, in her own way, earned it.

Whitmore, cast in the less naturally sympathetic role, goes out of his way to be ingratiating earlier in the play--which makes sense, though a few of his smiles were a little too broad for such a purported sourpuss.

His opening business, in which he sets the stage and cues the lights, begins the play on a note of unnecessary cuteness. We don't need to be reminded that this guy is really good old James Whitmore.

Apart from their individual moments, Lindley's and Whitmore's teamwork is virtually flawless. The two were once married and have worked together for years. Although Tony Giordano directed, the preparation for these performances surely began long before the director or even the playwright entered the scene.

Neil Peter Jampolis designed a simple set and more complicated lights, which help delineate the spaces. Debby Van Poucke's sound design is marred by a puzzling effect at the end of the first act.

'HANDY DANDY' By William Gibson, presented by Pasadena Playhouse producing directors Susan Dietz and Stephen Rothman. Director Tony Giordano. Sets and lights Neil Peter Jampolis. Costumes Jampolis, Maria Marrero. Sound design Debby Van Poucke. Production stage manager Theresa Bentz. With Audra Lindley, James Whitmore. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays 2 and 7 p.m. at 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena. Tickets: $17-$25; (818) 356-PLAY or (213) 410-1062.

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