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STAGE REVIEW : A Pot of Message in the Visiting 'Contact High' at Cast-in-Circle

February 25, 1988|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Beware the well-intentioned. There is no doubt of the high purpose behind "Contact High," a visiting production at the Cast-at-the-Circle. It's war on drugs, a little lesson in morality made palatable--or so the writer and performers must have thought--by waging it within a play about a 20-year high school reunion.

A cast of 19 has been marshalled into this campaign-cum-theater, with the script (by Mary Charles) focusing on the participants in the reunion, three of their dead companions (direct and indirect victims of drug-taking) and on the children of the reunionists, seen as a generation of victims.

Not an unworkable idea, though severely one-sided and undertaken here with a stunning innocence about what constitutes workable theater. The dead druggies (hippies) who materialize during the preparations for this party each tell a personal horror story of behavior under the influence that sent them packing into the next world (from playing Russian roulette to flying off a cliff).

Their surviving friends from the class of '68 are depicted as a spineless, doomed generation emerging from the Vietnam era to become terminal consumerists. Each of them also has a banal tale to tell (from failed orgasms to murder to mere irritation with false fronts) and each, in a formulaic lineup, is given a chance to tell it.

As the reunion gets rowdier, drunker, more maudlin and confessional, the children, left at home, go through some rather nasty gyrations of their own. The death by drugs of the youngest becomes as predictable after a while as the moral lesson that it's not good to fool around with controlled substances. So what else is new?

Writer Mary Charles and director Conley Falk don't help this dedicated but uneven company of performers. The problem starts with Charles' melodramatic script, too frequently unaware that it is written in vacant catch phrases ("The ocean is truly awesome"), cliches ("At the risk of sounding corny . . . ") and homilies.

More disquieting is the grotesque theory voiced a couple of times in this piece that the war in Vietnam was a ploy by the older generation to neutralize (as in fry the brains of) competition from the younger one. If this is on the level, it boggles the mind.

Not so easy to tell, though. "Contact High" takes itself so seriously that it comes dangerously close to self-parody, as exemplified by the carrying in state (above the shoulders, a la "Hamlet") of the body of the young boy by the ghosts of the three hippies.

Melodrama is one thing--but trite melodrama? This company needs a healthy loss of self-importance and some Drama 101. They might also check out plays such as "The Connection" or "A Hatful of Rain," not just for the message but the dramaturgy. There are ways and ways of scaring people into going straight. This one's not it.

Performances at 800 N. El Centro Ave. in Hollywood run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. until March 13. Tickets: $15; (213) 462-0265.

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