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'Heat of Re-Entry' at Theatre 40 / 'White Death' at Cast / 'Misanthrope" at Court / 'Tulsa' at Callboard

November 27, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

Another play about eastern European emigres in New York? Weren't "Between East and West" and "Hunting Cockroaches" enough on that particular subject?

No. "Heat of Re-Entry" is an original--a mercurial and occasionally magical piece that deserves a full-scale production beyond the workshop treatment it's getting in Theatre 40's "X" series.

Abraham Tetenbaum's play is set in Russia more than in New York--or at least it's set in the Russia that emigre playwright Lev (Allan Katz) imagines. He's writing about Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut who was the first human to orbit the earth. Lev discovers parallels between the ups and downs of Gagarin's experiences and the ups and downs of his own odyssey as a voyager to a new world.

The play shifts between Lev's apartment in New York, where he remains holed up while his wife and mother-in-law keep him fed and clothed, and the stages of Gagarin's life between his boyhood in 1942 and his death in a plane crash in 1968. Four actors play a variety of characters in both Russia and America, occasionally crossing the boundaries of time and place to speak to one another.

Tetenbaum orchestrates the mix with masterful clarity, as well as graceful good humor. By interpolating the Gagarin story into the emigre's story, his play moves far beyond a pity-the-poor-immigrant routine. Instead, we pity the poor human being, always a victim of his own hopes and dreams. But the play doesn't end on a pitying note; in fact, the ending may be a shade too hopeful. It works well in the theater, though; that's what counts.

Some of the credit is surely due Stewart J. Zully's staging, handicapped by an inappropriate set that was built for Theatre 40's mainstage production, "Pride and Joy." The cast--Laura Drake, Oceana Marr and Michael Gough as well as Katz--couldn't be better. It's a shame they don't have "a vast, starry sky," described in the script, as a backdrop.

We probably shouldn't take Lev's account of Gagarin's life all that seriously. Lev has a vested interest in believing the stories of Gagarin's decline into depression and alcoholism after his space flight, and Tetenbaum makes maximum use of his artistic license here. But this is more permissible for a playwright than it is for the writer of a realistic docudrama. As Lev says, in a line that's printed on the face of the program, "I am in United States. I am concerned with the truth, not mere facts."

Whatever the facts of Gagarin's life and death, Tetenbaum appears to be a playwright who tells the truth about the big issues.

Performances are at Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, Mondays through Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Tickets: $7; (213) 465-0070.

'The White Death'

Gregg Henry's rip-snorting performance as a no-nonsense Catholic priest who doubles as a gumshoe keeps Daniel Therriault's "The White Death" going for a while, at the Cast. And Alberto Isaac contributes a more subtle but equally effective turn as the meek proprietor of the Volcano Bar, set on the rim of Hawaii's Kilauea Crater.

But this murder mystery finally comes unglued. The ending hinges on two lame devices: the sudden introduction of one new character and a long-distance phone call. Even if you work your way past these gimmicks, exactly what happens--and why--remains convoluted and hazy. Therriault needs lessons in Mystery Writing 101.

One suspects--from the interview that appeared in The Times as well as from the play itself--that Therriault is more interested in making a grand statement about American (and Japanese) imperialism in Hawaii than he is in writing an airtight narrative. But then why are the Hawaiian characters weak and corrupt, in comparison to the dashing blond priest?

Of the story's several murders, only one happens before our eyes: the slaughter of a tourist (Royce D. Applegate) by an Hawaiian. We're spared the gory details of the deaths caused by the imperialists.

Therriault demonstrated a sounder structural sense and a more inventive flair for dialogue in his "Battery"--at least in its incarnation at Second Stage, which appeared three years after its run at the Cast. Maybe another three years of work will add up to an improved "White Death." Charles G. Davis directed.

Performances are at 804 N. El Centro Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through Dec. 20. Tickets: $12-$14; (213) 462-0265.

'The Misanthrope'

"If people heard you talking," the title character in "The Misanthrope" is told, "they'd split their sides." We should be so lucky. Edwin Gerard's staging of Moliere's comedy, at the Court, split no sides the other night, and elicited no more than a few chuckles.

The callow performance of Richard Biggs as Alceste has much to do with this. This is a production set in the original period, complete with wigs, yet Biggs' stormy demeanor is more in the style of a modern teen-ager who's forever mumbling about his awful parents.

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