Even though he was 49 when he committed suicide in 1984, novelist Richard Brautigan's creative life was brief. His celebrity rested chiefly with his Haight Ashbury flower-child guru image and life style, and an offbeat handful of books--among them "Trout Fishing in America" (the best known), "In Watermelon Sugar" and the early "A Confederate General From Big Sur," all published in the mid-'60s.
"Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel" came out a decade later, when Brautigan's drinking, writing, obsessive and even paranoiac behavior had all taken turns for the worse. Now Theatre of N.O.T.E.'s Joseph L. Megel and Phil Ward have attempted to bring "Sombrero" to the stage (at the Friends and Artists Theatre), subtitling it "A Japanese Novel for the Stage" (our italics). Adding those words has to be more than wishful thinking. The effort is well-meaning, arduous and misguided.
"Fallout" is the parallel account of entirely separate events: The nocturnal anxieties of a humorless American humorist (Brautigan poking fun at himself) over the dissolution of his relationship with a Japanese nurse--and the fable this humorist is trying to write, which takes on a life of its own.
That fable is the story of a small American town's descent into violence when a sombrero mysteriously falls out of the sky and lands in the town square. No one is able to pick it up because its temperature is 24 degrees below zero. But several people would like to: the mayor (Gideon Potter), the mayor's cousin (Gentle Culpepper), who aspires to become mayor and believes that picking up the sombrero may further his political chances, and a jobless man (Philip Sokoloff) who thinks picking it up might get him a job.
The competitiveness intensifies (the sombrero as chilling and elusive brass ring? . . .), and before long the whole town is involved in a major free-for-all. Its six policemen are dead (having collided head-on in the town's two patrol cars), the sheriff's department arrives on the scene and even the state troopers.
This set of events takes on grotesque and lampoonish dimensions, while the other half of the novel remains poetic, tormented and muted. The humorist (Robert O'Haver) pines after his lost love Yukiko (Hiroko Hojo), while she sleeps and dreams alone in her bed, her black cat (Dyanne DiRosario) curled up at her feet.
The stage version by Ward and Megel (who also directs) is done entirely in story theater style, which means that the actors speak their thoughts and announce their actions to the audience at the same time that they exchange words among themselves. Paul Sills successfully initiated this manner of acting with another set of fables in the early '70s. In the case of "Sombrero Fallout," it becomes a lazy way out of the novelistic framework. The device palls even before the end of the first half. It's an expedient rather than a solution to the knotty problem of transposing a novel to the stage.
The humorist and Yukiko are provided with an alter ego each, charged with doing most of the speaking to the audience for them. Ward, a talented actor, serves as the humorist's narrator; Michi McGee speaks for Yukiko, aided some by DiRosario's mellow cat. These parts of the play work best, achieving a certain ethereal dreaminess, as well as legitimate humor, in scenes involving real and imaginary conversations with other women (well played by June Beckett and Lamar Aguilar).
Unfortunately, the situation is quite different with the sombrero side of the story, which is hindered by a shapeless script and an acting ensemble long on aspiration but short on training. Brautigan's novel takes place inside of an hour. This adaptation goes on (and on) for almost three. The crowd scenes are, if not unmanageable, then unmanaged. They reach their peak of formless rowdiness too early, and the actors have nowhere to go but sideways or down.
Designer George Cybulski has provided a functional and attractive set of platforms with an appropriately skewed bed and desk. But director Megel hasn't got a handle on the physical logistics of the situation any more than his and Ward's adaptation has a handle on how to translate this novel into theater. The two men appear to have trusted their faithfulness to the book to do the work for them, letting events unfurl in a long-winded ramble, instead of trying to shape them by being selective, rigorous, concise and even charitably ruthless.
Events don't supply artistic definition on their own. The fallout from this "Sombrero" is a whole range of diminishing returns.
At 1761 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. until July 13. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 664-0689.