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STAGE REVIEW : Zulus, Pepsi, Joan Crawford --and Not a Whole Lot More

January 31, 1992|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

You might call Neil Tucker's "Joan and the Zulus" at the Cast Theatre an attempt at mythic comedy. It marries no less than two goddesses: Joan Crawford of the silver screen and Ulanga of the Zulu tribes (or so we are told).

In addition, "Joan and the Zulus" takes place in real and in mythic time. It also has real if bizarre people in it, and supernatural presences. And it capitalizes on such major American pop icons as Pepsi-Cola, a company of which Crawford was a vice president.

The melding of all this incongruity intrigued Tucker enough to write this play. But "Joan and the Zulus" is a one-idea piece that, in spite of John DiFusco's agile direction, travels no deeper or farther than from A to B.

There are a few laughs and a lot of imagination at work. There is also one of the better sets seen at the Cast: a tiny New York penthouse handsomely designed by Andy Daley and nicely lit by Ken Booth. At the center of the play is a caricature of Crawford that makes fun of itself--which is vastly different from Crawford the character making fun of her self, and the talented Grace Zabriskie knows the difference.

Zabriskie is Joan Crawford hosting lunch for a Zulu chief named Ngycobo (Tucker Smallwood) and his priest-medicine man, Mr. Wasumbi (G. Marshall Barnhardt), at her New York apartment, circa 1959. With her is her longtime German maid Mamacita (played as written, in absurdist strokes, by Sandy Martin) and, at the end of a ringing telephone, Joan's daughter Christina, author-to-be of "Mommie Dearest."

Ngycobo and Wasumbi, both in tribal regalia (Arline Grant designed the costumes), bring ritual gifts and the information that Zulu children downstream from the Pepsi plant have sickened and died.

It's a shock to Joan, who reminds the chief of Pepsi's dollar investment in the Zulus and promises more. A postprandial sacred drink and smoke seal the bargain, producing a high that sends Joan and her Zulus spinning in an orgiastic dance, joined by the goddess Ulanga (a spirited Earnestine Phillips). It's not quite the dessert anyone had planned, but a lot funnier.

So what's the problem? The absence of a play. The satirical burlesque is stretched ultra thin, with too many jokes linked to the obvious, such as Crawford's fetish for cleanliness or her dismissive treatment of her children.

Superficial stuff that doesn't go far enough. Impressive frau Martin, cavorting in this china shop, is good for some laughs.

Zabriskie, made up somewhat garishly to look like Crawford by Judi Lewin, plays the central role as a cartoon of Faye Dunaway impersonating Crawford. But her sly take is not immune to slips that occasionally turn her intense Joan into a grimacing one.

It's a problem posed by a script that relies on tone more than content. Stylistically, "Joan and the Zulus" has ambitions similar to Wendy McLeod's "The House of Yes" or Norman Lock's "The House of Correction," but falls short of the danger in the former and the dark excesses of the latter.

It is a Teflon play: funny while it lasts, vanished when it's over, leaving reputations scratched but pretty much unskewered.

"Joan and the Zulus," Cast Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood; Fridays - Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $15; (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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