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CRITIC AT LARGE

'Mail' Sets Are Something to Whistle About

November 24, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Somewhere along the line, it became an item of folk criticism to say: "I went out whistling the sets." It usually meant there wasn't much else worth whistling about.

But once in a while the sets are so spectacular that they are likely to linger in mind long after you've forgotten the plot, the tunes or who it was who was excellent as the drunken uncle.

It was true of the late Sean Kenny's sets for Lionel Bart's "Blitz," for example. Vast towers trundled across the stage, metamorphosing from one thing into another, and then into another, and back again. It was true of his sets for "Oliver," and everything Kenny did, including a spectacular "Casino de Paris" revue in Las Vegas. Kenneth Tynan once wrote fondly of Kenny's "momentous experiments in the use of surplus timber."

Kenny, who died in 1973, even fought Shakespeare to a draw in the staging of Peter O'Toole's "Hamlet," the premiere production of the National Theatre in London, in which Elsinore bore certain resemblances to a giant Erector set.

As much as anyone in the modern British theater, Kenny established a tradition of what you might call the kinetic set--the scenery with a life of its own. The tradition is now enshrined in razzle-dazzle productions like "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera," both of which threaten to run well into the next century.

The most ingenious set I think I've ever seen in Los Angeles is the celebrated fun house the husband-and-wife team of Vicki Baral and Gerry Hariton have done for the Jerry Colker-Michael Rupert musical "Mail" at the old-young Pasadena Playhouse.

I've been tardy negotiating the freeway to attend this tuneful phantasmagoric essay on early-life crisis, but better late than seldom, as someone once remarked.

The premise, now widely known, is that our hero (Rupert himself), goes AWOL from his love and loft to Think Things Out. When he returns, his piled-up mail comes to life, and a ghastly, ghostly indicting stack it is. A pal, a parent, an agent, a utility, a phone company, a magazine and naturally the abandoned love are all gnawing at him, along with his conscience.

All this involves quick, fantastical entrances and exits. The designers calculate there are 27 entrances to the set, which, thanks to the theater's revolving stage, has three faces.

The principal first-act set is a scrofulous and untidy loft apartment. It has revolving bookcases, an engulfing sofa, a bottomless trunk, a disappearing desk chair, a walk-through refrigerator and, beyond these and other trickeries, three doors that function in what comes to seem an absurdly normal way.

It is an evening of delicious surprises which, not so surprisingly, has been playing to crowded houses. The manic comings and goings give the engaging cast of 11 the strength of dozens.

It would be hard to know whom to single out for special cheers, but Rupert, singing his own tunes (Colker did book and lyrics), is a tower of nervous intensity. Mara Getz as his girl belts out what is either rock-flavored blues or blues-flavored rock and Antonia Ellis is terrific as Rupert's leggy and lascivious agent.

But it is throughout a wholly ingratiating cast, with a verve that saves them from being overwhelmed by the set (no small accomplishment).

Like many show tunes with narrative burdens to carry, the songs did not seem instantly hummable but they work nicely in context, and with a second hearing, who knows?

The second act is not as bright with startlements as the first, and I thought the lovers' angst went on about a wail-and-a-half too long. Yet the second principal set, a modernistic mezzanine with curving staircases down each side like parentheses, has its own calmer ingenuities. It is painted a uniform flat and sandy beige, the better to receive a sequence of moodily appropriate photo projections.

The exit feeling is one of wonderful exhilaration at such a display of youthful energy, ingenuity and talent. Those sets can't be whistled, but they can be whistled at in deep admiration, along with gratitude at seeing that the theater has not begun to exhaust its bag of tricks.

"Mail," first scheduled to close Sunday night, has been extended to Jan. 2.

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