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SAN DIEGO STAGE BEAT

Actors Theatre Tackles Tough Plays

October 09, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — One thing about the members of newly formed Actors for Actors Theatre--they don't do things the easy way.

It wasn't enough to debut with Mack Owen's perplexing--though often intriguing--"Conversations With the Adversary," which premiered at the Sushi Gallery and is now playing at the Bowery Theatre. They had to follow it up with a bill of two one-acts, Eugene Ionesco's "The Lesson" and Israel Horovitz's "Line," neither of which seems fated for mass consumption.

Both are playing at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse through Oct. 25. One works, the other doesn't. But just choosing the two demonstrates spirit.

"The Lesson" is a vision smartly done. Intelligent direction by John Highkin and strong performances by Debi Friedland (nominated for a San Diego Critics Circle award for her work in "The Miss Firecracker Contest") and Peter Larlham find a level of meaning that renders this play only superficially absurd.

Larlham plays a professor tutoring a student, Friedland, for her doctorate. As he takes her through addition, beginning with one plus one, the maid, Marie (Diane Robinson), warns him not to get excited.

He discounts her advice. But when he starts his pupil on subtraction and finds that she cannot grasp the concept, he does get excited. He moves on to philology and, as his pupil develops a toothache, he gets even more lathered up.

The childlike pleasure that Friedland takes in her surroundings and the professor's initial approval are nicely matched by Larlham's early determination to be the most patient of teachers. Highkin's taut direction results in a lovely pas de deux between these characters that seems to start sweetly, then subtly darkens until it moves to its final tragic ballet. Robinson, the only shaky member of the team, fails to exert a sufficiently controlling presence.

The stark set and costumes (uncredited) create a chilling chiaroscuro that extends, politically, even to the globe. Brett Kelly's lighting heightens the effect of the design as does Michael Currey's sound.

Belief is harder to come by in the company's second one-act offering, "Line." Given the thinly plotted nature of the story, it seems incredible that the play has been running since 1976 in the same New York theater.

In San Diego--let's face it--even the actors don't buy it. And it shows. Despite some funny and skillfully orchestrated moments, the show has no center, no crux of belief in what it is.

The five actors portray fairly shallow types. John Quigley, who did a nice job as Stanley in the recent San Diego State University production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," here plays Fleming, a rather dull working-class man. The show drags as it opens on him silently standing alone behind a white line.

Things pick up slightly when Stephen (David Whitney Johnson) enters as the hyperactive, slightly crazy fellow determined to usurp Fleming's place for no discernible reason. Then comes the trashily dressed Molly (Romy Kittrell) who moves forward and back in line by having sex with every man in it.

The show's best moments are delivered by Jeff Wolf as Molly's hapless husband, Arnall, and Phil Dietz as Dolan, a smiling corporate type who is the only one at ease with the tensions on the line. In his world, one can surmise, that is how life is supposed to be. When he comes to take his place, he brings a chair and a watchful eye that stakes out opportunities to move ahead.

No scenery other than white lines is given--none is needed. Kelly's lighting is adequate. The weaknesses in the other characterizations are exacerbated by Larry Sulani's floundering direction. In a play where everyone should know where he is going--to first place on line--only Dolan seems to know what's really going on. That's four players too few.

Performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 25. At the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, 1629 6th Ave., San Diego.

'BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS'

Actors for Actors Theatre was founded by San Diego State University instructors, graduates and near-graduates. Therefore, it's not surprising to find certain actors like John Quigley moving from an SDSU production to one by the Actors for Actors Theatre.

One can only hope there won't be any such road between Actors for Actors and the current SDSU production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs," playing through Oct. 11. These memoirs would be far better forgotten. Watching these teen-agers masquerade as grown-ups, one is hard-pressed to find anything about this show that is right.

Director Clarence E. Stephenson is not the first to take Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical story and WASPify the New York rhythms. But one can pray that he will be the last.

Of course, he couldn't have pulled it down without the cast. Still, they are young and may not have known they were given more than they could chew. It would be best if they put the job of playing Eugene Jerome (alias Neil Simon), and his brother, cousins, aunt and parents behind them.

The lighting by Lisa Passamonte is adequate. The costumes by Peggy Serrano are, if anything, too nice. Jack Jerome's slacks and button-down sweater seem a lot more reminiscent of Mr. Rogers than a struggling Jewish garment cutter.

Even the carefully done set by Takifumo Shimojima is inappropriate. While beautifully designed, its very spaciousness is antithetical to the crowded, closed-in feeling one is supposed to get in this teeming household. Again, we are being given the "Leave It to Beaver" suburban dream when we are being asked to feel the pressure of ethnic poverty.

Some groups tackle Neil Simon in the belief that a plethora of punchlines can render a script indestructible. For those still nursing such a delusion, this production demonstrates that the foolproof script does not exist.

Performances at 8 p.m. today and Saturday. At the Don Powell Theatre at San Diego State University.

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