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THEATER REVIEW : Comic Chaos Revived in 'The Pleasure of His Company'

October 08, 1992|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one writes drawing room comedies anymore. They don't even build drawing rooms anymore. And they were hard to find even in 1958, when playwrights Cornelia Otis Skinner and Sam Taylor unveiled "The Pleasure of His Company," a work Noel Coward said he wished he had written himself.

The revival at the Sierra Madre Playhouse catches the unctuous repartee of a long-absent, prodigal father who shows up in San Francisco for his daughter's wedding in a mansion overlooking the Golden Gate and immediately throws everything into chaos.

The playboy father, described in the play as "a man completely conscious of his charm and who uses it flagrantly," is raffishly portrayed by Thom Sanford, whose sophistication so intoxicates the daughter (the sunny Amy Arnelle) that she decides to ditch her fiance for a trip abroad with her dashing dad.

With wedding plans in sudden disarray, the comical decorum turns boisterous. The daughter's infuriated rancher beau (Jeffrey Stubblefield) and her humiliated society mother (Sandie Schuyler) accuse the jocular interloper of maneuvering to steal away his daughter, which is indeed the case.

But the father's sublime response is impenetrable, setting in motion a bemused tone crisply captured by director Bill Martyn. Meanwhile, others in the household duck from the flak, including an ingratiating Chinese houseman (Joe De Bevc), a wily grandfather (Joe La Gue) and a put-upon stepfather (the wavering Roy Hammond).

The supporting players are uneven, but three among them are quite sharp--Schuyler's matron, Stubblefield's uneasy lover and De Bevc's houseman.

While originating 34 years ago in the same Broadway season as "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Pleasure of His Company" actually echoes the flossy drawing room comedies of the '30s and '40s. You can almost hear the refrains of a Noel Coward play. In a deft casting touch, the last major Los Angeles production, at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in 1972, starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the suave, disaffected father.

Although not unexpected, given the budgetary resources of the 130-seat Sierra Madre venue, the furnishings and set design by David Calhoun are regrettably tawdry (faded old couches and chairs that look like they need a vacuuming).

It is all rather suggestive of a thrift shop instead of a house on a hill in Baghdad by the Bay. (Actually, a glimpse of the Golden Gate through a window is nice to look at.)

"The Pleasure of His Company," Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., and 8 p.m. Oct. 22. Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 24. $7-$8. (818) 355-4318. Running time: 2 hours.

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