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STAGE REVIEW : 1st-Class 'Mail' Returns to Pasadena Playhouse : 29-Year-Old Anti-Hero Drops Out and Drops Back in to Mirror the Neurotic '80s

November 03, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

The Pasadena Playhouse has brought us a return "Mail" and again it's a terrific, compact, glamorous, witty, clever, neurotic, very '80s show.

"Mail," which scored a major hit for the playhouse last summer, needed to get its second act together. The good news is that it mostly has. One can still quibble with a few items here and there, but if you accept the volatility of the premise, the anti-hero as part heel, part well-intentioned goof-off, there's no escaping the brightness and incisiveness of this show. It's got our ZIP code down to the last digit.

Boyish Alex (Michael Rupert) is a mixed-up 29-year-old writer who's got some growing up to do. Nothing works in his life and he can't figure out why. He's written five autobiographical novels (unpublished) and fathered sundry dead-end projects. To try to put his life in order, he drops out--without a word to his girlfriend Dana (Mara Getz), his agent Sandi (Antonia Ellis), his best friend Franklin (Brian Mitchell) or his parents (jointly represented here by Robert Mandan as his father Max).

When Alex returns to his Manhattan apartment four months later having resolved nothing and offended everyone, he's accumulated a mountain of mail and unpaid bills which talk back at him as he starts plowing through them.

Is this any way to run a life?

Maybe not, but it's a wonderful way to run a show. At least it's a novel approach, eccentric and custom-tailored to the eccentric '80s in which everything talks back at us: telephone answering machines, automatic tellers, clocks, computers, cars and VCRs. Why not mail?

So the friends, lovers, landlords, groups and companies that have written to Alex begin to pop in and out of furniture, walls and windows, aided by the real stars of this show: the exceptionally creative lighting and inventive sets of Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral.

These offer more surprises than Pandora's Box and share at least equal billing with Rupert (who, aside from playing Alex, composed the dynamic, muscular music) and Jerry Colker (who wrote the book and raffish/perceptive lyrics).

Everyone shows up, from Dana to Con Ed ("We're Gonna Turn Off Your Juice"), Franklin to the telephone company ("Disconnected"), Life magazine to the predatory Sandi ("It's Just a Question of Technique"). When Alex dives into his bathtub to escape, creeps from the class of '77 confront him with the horrendous prospect of a 10-year high school reunion.

By the second act, Alex not only needs to get it together, he's got to get it together. He's in the Clearing House Sweepstakes of Life and there's no kidding around. Time to see what if feels like in other people's shoes. Time to make decisions for himself. One false move and there'll be hell to pay . . . .

This is where "Mail" runs into a little trouble. Coming to terms is the name of the game, but the reconciliation with Franklin (whom Alex has let down badly) still seems a little expedient, motivated more by plot necessity than feeling. It's much easier to believe Alex's rejection of his controling agent Sandi (as much after his body as his books), especially since the sterner, sleeker Antonia Ellis has replaced ultra-luscious Jonelle Allen in the role.

What still remains extraneous in one of "Mail's" most touching nonrelationships, is the news of Alex's parents' divorce after 38 years of marriage. Is that what it takes to bring together a father and son? Wouldn't the newly mature Alex's own heralded paternity have achieved as much? Now as before, this divorce is a wrong reason, artificially milking sentiment from what, if left alone, would have been natural evolution.

The most persuasive equation remains that of Alex and Dana, no small thanks to Getz, who aside from being a vibrant singer, displays the most dimensional humanity. Where Rupert's Alex is all jumpiness and jangled nerves, her Dana is balance and bewilderment--at once loving, furious, devastated, in love, frustrated, confused and vulnerable. There is no more beautiful or telling song in the show than her "It's Getting Harder to Love You," unless it's her duet with Alex, "Pages of My Diary." A lot of "Mail's" distinction results from the complexity of this pair's conflicted emotions.

As with "A Chorus Line" and "March of the Falsettos," this show is great entertainment that isn't entirely escapist. It cuts us squarely where we live, striking nerves we all possess.

In addition to the miraculous lighting and set and the well-chosen principals (Mandan and Mitchell deserve particular mention), it also receives a top-notch production, with excellent costuming (George T. Mitchell) and musical direction (Ron Abel), a strong supporting cast (including the splendid Mary Bond Davis), split-second direction by Andrew Cadiff and articulate choreography by Grover Dale.

Plans are afoot and funds have been raised for a move to New York (Michael Frazier, Susan Dietz and Stephen Wells will be the producers). The show already has the sweet smell and stamp of success: spirit, electricity, immediacy, glamour. "Mail" it First Class all the way.

Performances run Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; until Nov. 22. Tickets: $20-$30; (818) 356-PLAY.

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