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2 One-Act Plays at the Bowery Theatre Sparkle With Humor While UC San Diego's 'The Madman and the Nun' Looks at the Absurd

December 04, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — The Bowery Theatre describes its Grand Guignol plays, a one-hour production that will run through Dec. 19, as "brief horror presentations" written by an Englishman at the turn of the century who was inspired by a genre of theater popular in Paris at that time.

What the program neglects to add, but the production, thank goodness, remembers to show, is just how funny Eliot Crawshay-Williams' two one-acts are.

The second play, "Grensal Green" is particularly successful in this regard, thanks to the efforts of Stanley Madruga and Erin Kelly as the lovers, Cheviot and Lorna, who are determined not to let a little thing like Lorna's rich fiance come between them.

Mickey Mullany has not so much directed as choreographed the two pushing and pulling in a series of embraces that just begin with the flesh. The long-limbed, half-sneering Madruga and Kelly, who plays a careless flapper right out of the F. Scott Fitzgerald school of heartbreak, can't seem to exchange words or glances without sizzling. The simple act of Cheviot lighting Lorna's long cigarette in its holder gives off smoke of another kind.

Their chemistry leaves the capable, but too bland, Jeff Okey in the dust as the fiance.

Dana Hooley is more critically out of her element as the mistress in the first one-act, "Rounding the Triangle."

In this story about a man trying to decide between his betrothed and his mistress, Hooley's decidedly unfunny hysteria strikes a pall over the proceedings. While Gregory Daun turns in an acceptable performance as the man, relief for the evening does not come until Susan Saroian, as the ever-so-sensible betrothed, marches in with the dizzying deal-making potential of a corporate executive with an MBA in the Realpolitik of marriage.

Both plays' witty scores by Lawrence Czoka, much like his choice of Charlie Chaplin's silent movie music between the acts, elegantly underline moments like Cheviot's tapping a mysterious powder into a cup of tea.

The costumes by John-Bryan Davis lushly convey a sense of aristocratic times gone by, disappointing only in the drab shoes.

Erik Hanson--handicapped by the need to come up with a quick set change after the earlier "Independence" production--hurriedly tried for an antique effect but ended up with swirls of color that look a lot more like a giant '60s tie-dye design that clashes both in style and hue with the furniture. Tom Phelps did the able lighting.

Performances are at the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., at 11 p.m. Fridays - Saturdays, through Dec. 19.

'Madman and the Nun'

Who is crazier--the people inside or outside the lunatic asylum? "Don Quixote de la Mancha" aside, one of the most eloquent theatrical equivalents of that question in recent memory is Philippe De Broca's "King of Hearts," the story of a Scottish soldier in World War I who finds that the gentle lunatics left in an otherwise abandoned French town seem saner than the men who are fighting the war.

Clever questions being what they are, it is not surprising that the salability of that thought has led to a spate of productions that question society's judgment of mental illness, reducing and/or mocking the psychiatrist as a symbol of tragic inadequacy as in "Equus," buffoonery as in "What's New, Pussycat?" or as a fount of tiresome homilies about the pointlessness of the profession as in "Lovesick."

"The Madman and the Nun," presented by UC San Diego at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, tries to attack the chestnut within an absurdist structure. Full of sound and fury and, ultimately, signifying nothing, this drama by Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, despite exemplary performances, leaves one gasping for an intermission which never comes in its one-hour running time.

Superficially about two schools of psychiatric thought fighting over a former poet-turned-madman's cure, "The Madman and the Nun" finds that the hero's true salvation lies in the healing hands of a nun. That, however, is not because the madman finds God, but because he discovers that underneath her gray shroud of a habit and a black hat that flares on either side like insect wings, Sister Anna is a passionate, Titian-haired goddess who has just been waiting for him to awaken her to the mysteries of desire. (Between this play and "First Night" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, this seems to be the season for nuns to break their vows.)

Under Patricia Pretzinger's direction, the cast seems as controlled as a well-oiled machine, jumping and leaping with respect to each other as if attached by invisible coils. And it is not just their movements that seem so cleverly mechanized. With the characters talking not so much to each other as to some mystical spots in the general direction of the audience, their often funny delivery strips this ostensibly passionate story of any vestige of feeling.

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