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STAGE REVIEW : The Sorry State of 'Mea's Big Apology'

April 29, 1988|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Go ahead, Mea. Apologize.

Let's face it, your play, "Mea's Big Apology," isn't much. It's all over the place. It goes on too long. It's about too little. It's also funny--but not quite funny enough. So go ahead. Apologize. You'll feel better--right? But Mea, Mea, Mea Culpa, whatever you do, don't apologize for being you.

Indeed, if there is anything that saves Mea's "Big Apology" at the Groundling Theatre, it's Mea. Julia Sweeney does not have to apologize for creating this sweet, timid, awkward, surreptitiously bold, underhandedly brave shrinking violet. All pigeon-toed Mea needs is a better Mea-trap--something a little more streamlined to better show off her talent.

At the moment she is starring in a pretty tame story of office politics, wherein early bird Mea is the first to stumble over Bob Greenshaw's body. Finding him sprawled over the copy machine unleashes cataclysmic events.

It makes meek little Mea, a clerk in the accounting department of this malpractice insurance firm, likely to succeed. Horrors. Sure enough, Mea is promoted to Greenshaw's managerial spot which means dressing for success and making executive decisions.

It also makes Mea's co-workers--spacey Robin (Sherri Stoner), pragmatic Eunice (Maggie Roswell), gossipy Louella (Andy Schell) and lovesick Jerry (David Sargent)--see her through new lenses. It even makes the guy who comes to check out the guilty copier take Mea home to check out his goldfish (Schell again, this time slick, suave and slimy).

No, the plot doesn't bear giving away (who would take it?), but it does offer this talented quintet of performers the chance to zero in on astutely observed types--their own, listed above, and a few tasty others: cloying Jill, the office cheerleader (Roswell); Chris, the muffin flower child (Sargent); Babs, another flake (Stoner) and that super-elusive, mega-executive Deborah Cox-Fergenbeimer (Sweeney herself).

Stephen Hibbert, who directed, also co-wrote the piece with Sweeney (Mrs. Hibbert) and a little help from their friends in the cast.

Hibbert admits to spending three years working for The Doctor's Company, a malpractice insurance firm; Sweeney spent five in the Participation Accounting Department at Columbia Pictures. That's known as paying your dues and being meant for each other.

The circumstances, however, also may have placed them too close to the object of their satire.

The scenes lack focus and tang or the kind of punch you would expect from these colorful and not overdrawn characters, Mea excepted. In the long run, the one-liners are too strung out to make any sort of sharp, concerted comment. We laugh at individual moments, not at an organic whole.

Tony Adbachi has provided a properly tasteless office set (though he might consider patenting his fascinating arrangement of suspended files on the walls) and Donald Bell's costumes, in the best tradition of design, make satirical statements of their own.

The actors are as good as they can be, given the weakness of the script (subtitled--subconsciously?--"Welcome to the Working Weak"), while the bespectacled, self-effacing Sweeney/Mea, hair demurely parted down the middle and anchored with bobby-pins, is a gem--a 24-karat diamond in need of a better mounting.

"Mea's Big Apology" is Sweeney's first attempt at a full evening of Mea Culpa. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry that it's not strong enough, but the Groundlings' emphasis on developing plays for created characters is absolutely correct. It's the only way that Mea Culpa will find herself and grow.

Mea reminds us of Lily Tomlin's Ernestine and cartoonist Cathy Guisewite's Cathy without being derivative of either. You can't go too far wrong from there.

Performances at 7307 Melrose Ave. run Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 934-9700 or through Ticketmaster.

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