LOS ANGELES — It looks as though Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine" is going to be pertinent for a few more years, just as it is now and when it was written in the early '80s. At its birth, there was women's lib and househusbands, which began to cloud the boundaries of sexual roles; now things are turning around again--in self-defense, there are male-bonding clubs. We're still trying to figure it out.
Churchill certainly hasn't figured it out, but in this, her most successful play, she does a pretty good job of charting the confusion. Act I is a lot of fun, showing it all as it used to be, in contrast to the subtler wit of Act II, which describes the legacy of attitudes that haven't changed much in the last decade, unless it's to start a swing back to the bad ol' days.
Royston Thomas, director of this production at Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre, treats Churchill's script in a straightforward manner. "Cloud Nine" is not a play that invites invention to top off its own cleverness. Outside of some slow tempos in a first act that needs stylish timing, he treats the text with respect, allowing it to make its own jokes, which it does very well.
The multiple shifting of roles and genders between Act I (in the 1880s) and Act II (in the 1980s, when the characters have aged only 20 years), is accomplished, as is the director's and actors' awareness of the shift of mood, timing and emphasis between the periods.
The company's transition is seamless: Close to high camp in Victorian Africa, near bittersweet desperation in modern London.
There are some memorable moments provided by Nancy Brooks, first as closet lesbian nanny Ellen and as lusty Mrs. Saunders, then quite touching and ethereal as the older Betty, a mother raised in corsets who has a terrible time trying to toss them away. Timothy Pulice is excellent as the young Betty in 1880, and underlines his modern male hustler Gerry with an intriguing flavor of sadness.
Marc Sandler is more effective as the adult homosexual son Edward in London, than he is as the Victorian father Clive, and Brendan Patrick Dillon is stronger as a confused husband today than as the libidinous white hunter Harry Bagley. The boy Edward, who likes to play with dolls, and the grown-up daughter Victoria (both performed by Paulene Smith) and crotchety grandma Maude and single lesbian mother Lin (Patty Glenevich both times) are fully colored snapshots. Burr Steers is delightful as the leering black servant in Africa and as Lin's obnoxious little girl Kathy.
They're all aware that Churchill is wagging a shaggy dog in our face, one whose bark says as much about our sexual circus as the bite of its delicious humor.
* "Cloud Nine," Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $15; (213) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.