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STAGE REVIEW : 'American Splendor' Mines the Ordinary

October 19, 1990|ROBERT KOEHLER

If you listen to Harvey Pekar long enough, you find yourself starting to think like him. That's why, in a strange, inexplicable way, listening to "American Splendor," director Vince Waldron's adaptation of Pekar's writings at Theatre/Theater, is likely to make you, if not a funnier person, a more observant one.

Anyone who has read the underground comics of R. Crumb has likely read Pekar's work, since they've been frequent collaborators since 1974. Crumb is by far the more famous, so one would think that Pekar writes to Crumb's dead-on visuals, full of overweight urbanites at wit's end.

Wrong. Crumb draws to Pekar's dialogues, as do all of Pekar's other artist collaborators, which suggests what a crackling writer he is. What Waldron has done is allowed the words to stand apart for themselves and has let Harvey, played by Dan Castellaneta, speak for himself.

The show's title comes from the comic book Pekar puts out each May--we even find out why May, and not, say, June. In his introduction to an anthology of "American Splendor," Crumb provides the show's cue: "There is drama in the most ordinary and routine of days, but it's a subtle thing that gets lost in the shuffle."

This is life from the little guy's point of view. Castellaneta's Pekar is ultra mild-mannered, quintessentially droll, not the kind of fellow to get into emotional highs or lows. He's kept his day job as a file clerk at the Cleveland V.A. office all these years because it keeps him in touch with folks. Without that, he explains, he couldn't write.

He's no working-class hero, though. While relating his weird fling with a phony named Carla (Siobhan Fallon, phenomenal in this and several other roles), he admits that all he really wanted out of her was a few good rolls in the hay. What he can't take--and this makes Harvey our kind of guy--is the act she puts on, bad British accent and all.

Pekar isn't that desperate for a woman, although he clearly has a hard time dealing with them, judging by his three marriages (Fallon returns as his most recent wife). He relates better to men: the quiet, wise Mr. Boats (Andy Wilson); the bookish Sid (David O'Shea), who always has dinner with his mom; the nerd Toby, and the verbosely Yiddish Emil (Richard Kuhlman, in a dazzling switch).

The "driven, compulsive" Pekar of Crumb's description is nowhere to be found in Castellaneta's charming performance. It jibes with Pekar's obvious distaste for fame, punch lines and morals--he's just observing. It's how he observes that makes "American Splendor" a perfect antidote to our nasty epoch.

At 1713 N. Cahuenga, Saturdays , 10:30 p.m. through Nov. 24. $10; (213) 466-1767.

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