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STAGE REVIEW : Solid Characters in 'Rockville'

September 29, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

We have been getting quite a few plays about the old hometown lately, and most of them have been pretty good. So is Jamie Baker's "Don't Go Back to Rockville" at the Victory Theatre.

As with any visit to somebody else's hometown, it takes a while to figure out the relationships--who is married, who is fooling around, who can't stand whom. Having done so, you aren't immediately sure it was worth the effort.

But then Ed shows up.

"Rockville" doesn't happen in Rockville. The characters may have originally come from some such place, but now (1944) they live in Louisville, around Churchill Downs. These are race track people, and it's a proof of how well he knows them that playwright Baker doesn't make them race track characters. They would admit to being crazy, but no more so than the average factory worker.

Ed (Andrew Philpot) is a jockey. Was a jockey. Just before today's Derby, he got suspended by the racing commission, for no good reason. He has spent the day drinking and brooding about this.

It's 2 a.m. now, and he has come down to Darlene's bar to claim his wife. He knows she's there; that's her purse on the table. That means she's upstairs with somebody. And he knows who.

This is known as a sure-fire dramatic situation, but there's no situation so sure-fire that the playwright can't botch it. Baker (who also directed) makes this one convincing and specific.

There is violence, but it's not movie violence. It's the shame-faced violence that might prevail between two men who both have something to be guilty about. Watch how Glenn Withrow, as the other party to the fight, keeps putting up his hands. He blames himself for having thrown Ed's wife (Hallie Todd) into this marriage in the first place.

As for Ed, he has always felt lousy about himself, the runt of the litter. Philpot makes this a definitive portrait of a sorry-faced, narrow-chested swamp-boy who is going to make the world pay for all the suppers that he and his little sisters went without.

You can see it in the man's eyes--no need for big speeches. Which aren't playwright Baker's style in any case. Himself an actor, he likes to keep his lines lean, trusting to his cast to fill in the data under them.

Where our last hometown play, "Steel Magnolias," had the chattiness of a down-home sitcom, this one restricts itself to what-they'd-say. "Care to dance?" is a significant offer.

What they'd say can be shrewd. Libby Boone's Darlene can read people like a book, starting with herself. She is well aware, for instance, that her current live-in (Matt McKenzie) is a thief. She'll protect herself against him, without expecting him to change. He does play the guitar nicely.

People in this play are what they are. They know each other's weak spots (half of them are related to each other) and they aren't too apologetic about their own. Life isn't some kind of magazine contest; you get through it as best you can.

Again, this isn't stated. It's implicit in the behavior. Baker seems to understand what makes all of his characters tick, and to feel no need either to hand out gold stars or parking tickets--people do what they have to do, and you can't hold them too responsible for it.

One of the wittier aspects of the play is that it's not clear until the very end whose story we have basically been watching. Presumably that "Will you marry me?" is the prologue to the second play in this trilogy in the making. It makes a fine beginning here.

Plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Runs indefinitely. Tickets $12.50-$15. 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. (213) 465-0070 or (818) 843-9253.

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