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STAGE REVIEW : Pockets Full of Humor, Love Found in 'Laundry'

May 03, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The title of the new play at the Coronet Theatre, "Brooklyn Laundry," is not a misnomer, but it is misleading. This is not a play about a laundry in the way Arnold Wesker's "The Kitchen" was a play about the operation of a restaurant kitchen and the workers in it.

"Laundry" is a love story.

It involves 3 1/2 characters and its first scene happens to take place in the basement laundry room of a Brooklyn apartment building. It is written with verve and humor by Lisa-Maria Radano and offers actors 3 1/2 plum roles.

In this particular case--an uncommon marriage of film and stage artists, who are often one and the same--the actors are Glenn Close, Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson and, in the half role, Carrie Hamilton. They are every bit as first-rate as one might have expected.

If one had known what to expect.

Since the production is a first directorial stage effort for film and television director James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News," "Taxi") and since rehearsals were tightly closed, there were no early signals of what was in store--or what spurred Brooks to make this leap into theater.

Now we know. "Brooklyn Laundry," with its vivid characters, use of direct address, humor that ranges from earthy wit to coy one-liners and events as gruff, beguiling and improbable (though dissimilar) as those in John Patrick Shanley's "Moonstruck," is fundamentally a movie.

In fact, it started out as a screenplay that reportedly insisted on becoming a play. But it is structured like a movie, with the difference that locales don't change as often and exchanges run longer. Like most good films, however, its emphasis is on telling a story more than on challenging an idea, which, arguably, is one way of telling a play from a movie.

The story here is that of a brusque 40ish Italian-American named Birdie (Close), who owns and runs an apartment building in Brooklyn as tightly as the captain of a good ship. She prefers being known by the distancing and generic term "the landlady."

By her own admission, she has managed to live this long without sex or a man, which is the way--she has fairly persuaded herself--she wants it. "Marriage," she tells her willowy niece, Philamena (Dern), who's in love with a guy named Dave and wants to get married, "is something else again. And again and again and again."

Birdie's maternal instinct was fulfilled by the rearing of this orphaned niece. She doesn't approve of Philamena's Dave, having seen his underwear in the wash. The Daves of this world are trouble, she warns Philamena, who loves her aunt but wants Dave more. Birdie may be strongly opinionated but, as we discover, she's also a sharp student of humanity. If Philamena is determined to marry, Birdie will let her--simply warning that the marriage won't last a year.

It's the tip-off for greater amazement to come, when a handsome devil named Henry (Harrelson), a rock-band manager who has sublet one of Birdie's apartments, bursts into her laundry room--and her life.

He may not know much about working a washer and dryer, but to Birdie's utter confusion, he knows how to play all her stops. Expertly and, to everyone's surprise, including ours, sincerely .

It wouldn't be fair to divulge what happens next, which is unlikely anyway, but it is funny and touching and sweet, and carried off with skill and panache by both director and cast. The facile moral of the story revolves around the concept of forgiveness ("the most difficult love there is") and its capacity to enrich and reward. But Radano's play is chiefly a warm and often astute character study about the tricks life plays.

Dialogue coach Tim Monich has ensured that everyone who needs to speaks proper Brooklynese lightly flavored with Italian overtones. Close and Dern are terrific at it. Both actresses, no strangers to theater, deliver chiseled, well-differentiated performances.

But it is Harrelson, Woody in "Cheers" and a frequent player on L.A. stages, who steals our hearts as the sentimental music cowboy. His Henry is an innocent in Gomorrah, who wears his heart on his sleeve, a wise twinkle in his eye and a boyish grin. Hamilton also does well as another tenant in the building called on to do unexpected duty among the audience. Enough said.

Producer Polly Platt designed the appropriate costumes and sets--a basement laundry room and a park in autumn. They are sharply observed and as realistically detailed as a movie set.

"Brooklyn Laundry" is the kind of quality crossover that honors all participants and the best blurring of the line between theater and film. The show's genealogy (Columbia Pictures Entertainment is presenting, in association with Brooks' Gracie Films) constitutes a rapprochement between media one would wish strongly to encourage.

The fact that the three-week run is sold out and scalpers are having a field day may be the loudest signal that the audience out there is hungry for more human contact with its film and electronic icons. It remains to be seen if this production will be an isolated curiosity, or the cue for more to come.

"Brooklyn Laundry," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 19. $20-$25; (213) 652-9199. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

'Brooklyn Laundry'

Glenn Close: Birdie

Laura Dern: Philamena

Woody Harrelson: Henry

Carrie Hamilton: 4C

A new play by Lisa-Maria Radano presented by Columbia Pictures Entertainment in association with Gracie Films. Producers Laurence Mark, Polly Platt. Director James L. Brooks. Sets and costumes Polly Platt. Lights Casey Cowan, Brian Gale. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager George Boyd. Stage manager Kathy Ogilvie. General manager Karen S. Wood.

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