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Wendy Kamenoff on a Couch in 'New Jersey'

September 17, 1992|KAREN FRICKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At this point in the autobiographical solo performance game, you gotta have a gimmick. The field's pretty crowded, and it's the rare performer who has anything new to contribute.

There's certainly no new ground broken in "Undressing New Jersey (and Other States of Mind)" written by spouses Wendy Kamenoff and Steve Mittleman and performed by Kamenoff at the Court Theatre.

Recounting her pudgily miserable suburban adolescence and exorcising ugly demons about body image, family problems and sexual abuse is surely a self-empowering and necessary experience for Kamenoff, but the evening lacks sufficient urgency and freshness to command an audience's attention.

Despite director Mark W. Travis' attempts to tease some theatricality out of the script, "Undressing New Jersey" comes off as nothing so much as sitting in on another person's therapy session.

It's the content, more than the performer, that is the problem. Kamenoff is an attractive and able actress who's a particularly gifted mimic. Her face, body and voice metamorphose as she depicts beloved, Chesterfield-smoking grandma Gussie; overly manicured, waspish mother Marion; and sluttish high school rival Celeste Salvia ("Think Joe Pesci in heels").

When she's addressing the audience as herself, though, Kamenoff's delivery is ineffective and uneven. She starts out in stand-up comic mode, then takes on a wide-eyed confessional manner that quickly cloys.

The production, if overlong, is lovely to look at. Set designer Kathleen B. Cooper created an environment of airy cream-colored draperies whose centerpiece, an oversized throne, gives initial promise: Might this be a rococo tweak of the austere one-chair-on-a-bare-stage milieu of many solo performers? No such luck; the throne is never used.

Michael Pearce's lighting warms the set, adding visual interest by creating distinctive playing areas. Travis' direction keeps the pace up, but using slides and music is a good idea that remains underdeveloped. They illustrate Kamenoff's words but provide no new information.

* "Undressing New Jersey (and Other States of Mind"), Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 18. $12.50-$15; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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