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STAGE REVIEW : 'Etta Jenks' a Bleak Look at the Darker Side of Hollywood Life

January 18, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

"Etta Jenks," at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, is one of those plays that you wish didn't ring true.

Playwright Marlane Meyer starts with an old, old image: a girl from the sticks arriving in Hollywood. Actress Deirdre O'Connell makes it clear that she's no innocent. Still, she deserves a better life than she finds.

Not that she ends up on a slab. Rather, she ends up in a position of power--one of the vendors in the Hollywood meat market, rather than one of the pieces of meat. But the quality has gone out of her. She's just like everybody else now.

And she had come to Hollywood because she was different, a difference that the cameras were bound to catch. Hollywood, she had thought, was where you get paid for being what you are.

What she finds is that Hollywood, like everywhere else, wants product. Etta does get to make some pictures, the kind that get shown in video arcades. She also gets into some fairly heavy stuff down in Mexico.

In the end, Etta's showing a new recruit around and trying not to give her any false hopes. But the new recruit (Dendrie Taylor) seems to know the ropes already.

Playwright Meyer tells her story as objectively as David Mamet told his in "Glengarry Glen Ross." Her people are sleazeballs--the men, anyway--but each has worked out a rationale for his behavior, and may even have a sense of humor about it.

Take Max, the hit man (Ebbe Roe Smith). Max knows he doesn't have a "full set of human emotions," but at least he's not psychopathic. Also he's got his standards. It's OK to kill a porno film maker, because porn "undermines the stability of the family."

Etta's most interesting female friend is Sheri (Jonelle Allen), who believes in out-of-the-body experiences, and at the end of the play may have undergone a permanent one--which is why Etta is hiring a hit man.

What's disturbing is how matter-of-fact it all is. Playwright Meyer knows how quickly people adjust to a milieu that would give an outsider the creeps. Flesh peddling, like any other kind of peddling, doesn't exist without customers, and everybody in this play sees himself as an honest businessman, even as someone performing a "public service."

If that involves yeast infections, drugs, the occasional broken arm and the occasional disappearance south of the border, hey, that's the business. Are you in or are you out?

Yet the men are disturbed when the women start "deciding when it's time to get even." At a guess, Meyer isn't thrilled about this either. "Etta Jenks" is too circumstantial to be called a morality play, but its larger subject is how easy it is to become the system we serve. It seems an especially brutalizing process for a young woman. But what is Etta supposed to do, play dead?

The play doesn't even pose it as a question. That's for the audience to do. Its business is simply to watch Etta fall through the cracks in Hollywood, a dark city that won't be unfamiliar to the viewers of John Steppling's plays.

Sometimes the script takes on the drone of these as well. In general, however, there's a lot of theatrical energy here. Director Roberta Levitow encourages a stylistic approach to the characters, who aren't above self-dramatization, this being Hollywood, where everybody has his spiel.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac starts as a bad dude at the railroad station, and transmutes into a "badder" one in a three-button suit. J. C. Quinn is all evil self-regard as the fourth-rate "producer" who saw to Sheri's disappearance, with the help of John Pappas, whose insecurities spell trouble for other people.

There's a strong smell of fear in "Etta Jenks," which is set in a three-sided cube by designer Rosario Provenza--a space that suggests unfurnished rooms and recently vacated offices. Under Robert Wierzel's varied lights, it's the perfect landscape for a play about fly-by-nights.

You won't enjoy meeting most of the people in this play, which opens LATC's ninth annual new plays festival. But you'll find them disturbingly symptomatic of the times.

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