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STAGE REVIEW : No Still Life in 'Painting' in Laguna

January 23, 1991|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — Though it is only a wisp of a play, Tina Howe's "Painting Churches" seems tailor-made for the Laguna Playhouse's subscription audience, which consists to a large degree of older theatergoers and Leisure World retirees. They, more than anyone, are likely to appreciate the foibles and frustrations of Fanny and Gardner Church, the aging couple that dominate this bittersweet comedy at the Moulton Theatre.

As these two human monuments to the fading glories of WASP-dom are preparing to abandon their large Boston townhouse on Beacon Hill and retreat for good to their small summer cottage on Cape Cod, their daughter, Mags, arrives from New York. Mags--short for Margaret--is a portrait painter in her early 30s about to have her first solo show at a prestigious gallery in Soho. Within moments of her arrival, she has set up her easel and canvas to "do" her parents--thus the title "Painting Churches."

Given the languors of a portrait sitting, Howe shows enormous ingenuity at breathing dramatic life into a plot with such negligible potential. But it is the sort of ingenuity that goes into the making of an outlandish cuckoo clock. The play has all the domestic bells and whistles of a Boston Brahmin household, not unlike those in A. R. Gurney's drawing-room dramas, as well as a comically subversive quality that pops in and out at unexpected places.

Howe sets each of the characters at mild cross-purposes. Fanny, the wisecracking housewife with a taste for dubiously fashionable hats, wants to get on with the packing but can't get her husband to cooperate. Gardner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet now declining into intermittent senility, is obsessed with an unfinished manuscript of literary criticism consisting of mere sentence fragments. Wherever he goes, a trail of white pages flutters to the ground.

In the meantime, Mags, whose artistic success masks deep insecurities, busies herself at her canvas like Van Gogh on a holiday.

Despite the ostensible focus on Mags, who is at the apex of this triangle as an obvious stand-in for the playwright herself, Fanny and Gardner dominate the play simply because they're more interesting characters. More is revealed about them, and more of them shows. Besides, they've got all the shtick.

Gardner--played by George Woods with a voice that carries like a trumpet--is a sight-gag-a-minute creation who has an absent-minded mania for putting on as many jackets, ties, scarves and overcoats as he can--all at the same time. In particularly funny moments he looks like a walking clothes rack.

Fanny--played by Betsy Hewett with a voice that rustles like coarse sandpaper--is a combination of the pleasure-loving sport, the practical nurse and the long-suffering wife whose pathos is hinted at but never quite plumbed.

Mags--played on alternate nights by Jacquie Moffet and Catherine Rowe--has a long speech about her childhood diversion of melting crayons on the radiator and the reaction from her mother. It explains Mags' motive for becoming an artist but seems little more than the playwright indulging herself in psychological blarney.

As accurately directed by Douglas Rowe, the production moves along swiftly and with entertaining results until the script itself runs out of laughs. The set and costumes are adequate. The Chopin sound track is right. And the final scene, engineered with a see-through scrim, is poetically spectacular.

'PAINTING CHURCHES'

A Laguna Playhouse production of Tina Howe's play. Directed by Douglas Rowe. With George Woods, Betsy Hewett and Jacquie Moffett alternating with Catherine Rowe. Set and lighting design by Robert L. Smith. Costume design by Jennifer Jo. Sound design by David Edwards. At the Moulton Theate, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Performances through Feb. 10, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $13 to $18. Information: (714) 494-8021.

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