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THEATER : A Double Manhattan : 'Taxi Tales' and another Leonard Melfi one-act, 'Halloween,' are flavorfully staged glimpses of New York life.

October 23, 1992|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

You know you're in a for a night of heightened East Coast street talk when you enter the theater and walk smack into a finger- snapping quintet, "The Doo Wops," whose a cappella harmonies rhythmically frame the evening of two one-acts by Leonard Melfi at the Gypsy Playhouse in Burbank.

Few playwrights dramatize the Manhattan idiom better than Melfi. Several of his one-acts catch the underbelly of New York like snapshots taken in a Gotham passport booth. Such is the texture of two Melfi oldies but goodies, "Halloween" and "Taxi Tales," flavorfully staged by The Dark Night Players and director David Anthony Dion, a Melfi devotee and protege.

The plays are from the '60s ("Taxi Tales") and the '70s ("Halloween"), but they sustain a low contemporary simmer under the very New Yorkese inflections of a polished 13-member cast. The performers, in fact, are sharp enough to actually enhance material that could be faulted, if you squint at it hard enough, for underdevelopment ("Taxi Tales") and sentimentality ("Halloween").

Taxis, of course, are a ripe source of human nature. (Literally the first book this reviewer ever read in high school--on his own--was a mildly risque paperback published in 1948 called "My Flag Is Down," about the odyssey of a New York cabby, which hooked me on the impossibly romantic dreams and sexy possibilities of life in a taxi. In this play, Melfi understands, and his own flag humorously dips all over the road.)

On stage is the mock-up of a huge old Checkers cab, the kind you find only in New York. Three cabbies (distinctively played by Jennifer Buttell, Bob Wilson and director Dion) pick up the flotsam and jetsam of the night.

Among the bizarre and freaky fares are John Rizzi and Evelyn Brewton's wide-eyed honeymooners, Del Whitely's dippy playgirl and Bob Wilson's zany good-timer having sex in the back seat, Kisha Waters as a jive-conning woman in a nun's habit, and--in the most boisterous and richest characterization--Julie Balsamo's bitchy contessa who looks as if she blew in from a party in "La Dolce Vita," with a midriff so revealing and a body so assertive she could flag down a thousand cabs.

As a final insult, in the play's only moment that is wildly out of character for a Gotham taxi guy, three of the passengers stiff the cabby (an improbably pliable Dion).

"Halloween" is an indoor play, set in the roach-infested, freshly burglarized apartment of a lonely, bellicose garbage collector, who is caught with marvelously whiny bluster by Jonathan Ginsberg.

The tenement drama co-stars the gritty, Irish-accented Carol Ketay. In a nicely shaded performance, Ketay is subtly appealing as the one-in-a-million romantic counterpoint who appears in her maid's outfit to offer support to the suddenly impoverished burglary victim.

In a way, as you watch these two, and especially zero in on Ketay's high cheekbones and arched eyebrows and Ginsberg's bulky, insecure slob, the couple begin to resemble TV's Audrey Meadows and Jackie Gleason on a particularly bad and heart-stopping day on "The Honeymooners."

Where and When

What: "Halloween" and "Taxi Tales."

Location: The Gypsy Playhouse, 3321 W. Olive Ave., Burbank (across from NBC).

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 1.

Price: $10.

Running Time: 2 hours.

Call: (818) 842-5820.

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