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Director Arthur Packs 'Lies' With Emotion

August 30, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Anybody who saw last season's crackling TV version of Hugh Whitemore's play "Pack of Lies" knows whodunit. Teri Garr played Helen, the suspected Russian spy; Ellen Burstyn was best friend/neighbor Barbara, who reluctantly allowed her house to be used to monitor--and ultimately facilitate the arrest of--Helen and her husband, Peter. Yet knowing up front that Peter and Helen are indeed guilty doesn't spoil the story.

Or so Charles Arthur would tell you. Arthur, who is staging "Pack of Lies" at Theatre 40 (where it opens this weekend), describes the play as "a psychological thriller, but also a political and sociological study. You could do this play as an open-and-shut, good guys/bad guys kind of thing. But to me, its better if it's left open, where there's right on both sides: ' Now what?' Dyed-in-the-wool villains would be too easy."

For the director, the most fertile emotional ground is in "the different emotions of having one's house used that way, where the responsibility to friendship ends, where the responsibility to country ends--and how bureaucrats use individuals to achieve their own ends. Also, I'm very attracted to what happens to the character of Barbara, as well as her husband, her daughter. . . .

"It's a true story, based on an actual case in England, where the MI5--sort of a cross between the CIA and FBI--got permission and came in and used these people's upstairs bedroom to spy on the couple across the street. The spies were originally Americans who got hooked up with the (Julius and Ethel) Rosenberg case, left the States to avoid arrest and ended up in England."

As for similarities to the TV version: "The basic premise is the same, but how we get there is different. They left out some monologues, put in other scenes. And they went outside. Here, everything takes place in one room."

Hot and humid sets the stage for T. J. Walsh's new romantic comedy, "The Love Song of Alex Vandenberg," which just opened at Actors Alley.

"It's about a guy who's just gotten divorced and goes to the University of Texas to teach," said the playwright. "In the course of telling his story, he tries to rewrite things that have happened--but the other actors don't let him get away with it. Also, Alex talks to the audience, which keeps things kind of fast-paced. Rehearsals have been that way, too: light, fun, the way things should go. Otherwise, it starts to feel like Eugene O'Neill."

Not-so-coincidentally, Walsh (who wrote the play four years ago and rewrote it two years ago--"Each new time I get more objective") attended the same college.

"Some of my experiences in Texas are in there, mostly of being a native Californian in a strange land," he said. "I was raised in the Bay Area, and the day I got to Texas it was 100 degrees. So it brought back the experience of not being sure of myself, being an outsider--and according to everyone, 'having a nasal accent and talking too fast.' But once Texans get to know you, they're very warm." Like the climate.

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: "Ring Round the Moon," Jean Anouilh's comedy of love, money, status and mistaken identity, recently opened at the Colony Studio Theater.

Said Ray Loynd in The Times: "Parker Stevenson plays twin brothers--one diffident and gentle, the other cynical and brash--with engaging assurance and infectious aplomb. Sheri Galan is the ingenue and she's absolutely lambent. . . . Especially fun is the sense that some of the scenes sound like Noel Coward and others like Joe Orton. It's that crisp."

Drama-Logue's Polly Warfield positively cheered. "In this effulgent production, all the elements blend together so beautifully as to make it a once-in-a-blue-moon happening. . . . Michael Keenan directs with verve, precision and panache. All the roles are richly and wondrously fulfilled. 'Ring' is pure moonlit magic."

In the Pasadena Star-News, Diane Butler found "the frothy piece has just the right ingredients for savory summer fare. . . . Against this backdrop of wealth and social position, the large cast moves freely. Parker Stevenson, late of 'The Hardy Boys' and 'Falcon Crest,' takes the juicy double role of the twins, playing both aggressive Hugo and shy Frederic."

And from Kim Mitchell in Daily Variety: "The dialogue attempts to juggle bright bons mots traded by French aristocrats and nouveaux riches at the turn of the century. A lot of the wit is lost in the translation, unfortunately. To his credit, director Michael Keenan juggles his actors with dexterity and keeps the show moving at a brisk pace--not easy to do with 12 characters whom the author gives more stage time than they deserve."

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