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STAGE REVIEW : Calculating Parental Shadow : 'Colonization,' which follows characters through 20 years, is greater than the sum of its parts.


Like two marionettes dangled hesitantly, then moved closer and closer to each other, Mandy and Dion in David Lyon-Buchanan's play "Colonization" (written "in collaboration" with his wife, Jennifer Lyon-Buchanan) eventually meet, drift apart, meet again and marry. We never get close to them, and we're not bothered that we don't. "Colonization" isn't about warm, fuzzy feelings.

It's dealing with bigger game: how children can never quite get away from their parents' shadows, and how this particularly affects artistic children. Mandy (played by Jennifer) is hungry for painting as a child growing up in wealthy San Marino, while Dion (Jonathan Nichols) drifts more slowly into novel writing from his working class home. Immediately, this rich-girl/poor-boy axis sets up the play's ambitions as a look at American culture as well as its weakness for pat setups and conclusions--all propelled by a script with well over two dozen scenes covering 20 years, 1965 to 1985.

There's a pleasure in the mathematics and manipulation, but not when the calculations don't add up. This is a play curiously greater than the sum of its parts: Characters and life-changing episodes speed past, sometimes leaving a resonance, sometimes not.

One that should but doesn't is Rae (Patricia Idlette). As Mandy's art mentor and Dion's first real lover, Rae casts a long shadow. Indeed, while parents are accused here of "colonizing" children, Rae surely does just as much. Yet Idlette has too little time to establish Rae's presence, rendering Mandy's baroque speech about Rae's death an unintentionally comic eulogy. Why is she getting this worked up over someone we barely knew?

"Colonization" contains many such unresolved questions as it tries to pack in a lot of material (this must be one of the first plays to have scenes in an Italian-American living room and the Venice Biennale). This isn't the kind of problem the Lyon-Buchanans need, especially in their mathematically designed narrative.

And just as the script is still working out many kinks, so director Marjorie Hayes' cast is feeling its way, sometimes hesitantly, through the material. Nichols was unfazed Saturday when author David Lyon-Buchanan had to stand in (on book) for Sam Vincent as his father in the family scenes. Just as gracefully Nichols moves from fitful adolescence into ultra-fitful adulthood. Jennifer doesn't make the transfer nearly as well. Her younger Mandy, even if she's supposed to be worldly, is far too mature at 14. Mandy's too smart for her own good, and Jennifer understands that, but when she and Dion burn out, it's visible only in Nichols' eyes.

The supporting ensemble offers some brief, rich portrayals, particularly from Roz Witt (as Dion's mother and Mandy's wily art dealer) and Alan Goodson (as Dion's brother and as Mandy's date from hell). There are other neat character switches as well from Richard Voigts and Mary Stark, to say nothing of the rapid, sure scene switches on Julia Beeding's world-as-art-studio set.

Where and When

What: "Colonization."

Location: Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Times: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Aug. 9.

Price: $15.

Call: (213) 466-1767.

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