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STAGE REVIEW : The One-Act Zone : 'Beyond the Cringe' delves into the macabre and the surreal for its own purposes, but it still owes something to Rod Serling.

October 30, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

Theatre East is encouraging patrons to arrive in costume for the Halloween performance of their "lab" production, "Beyond the Cringe," which pairs one-acts by Katherine Long and David Campton. We'd recommend leaving the skeleton or "Alien 3" outfit at home and possibly donning a Rod Serling mask.

Serling's shadow as the creator of "The Twilight Zone" looms large here, in good and not-so-good ways. For starters, Long's "Ariel Bright" toys with the macabre, but becomes a supernatural romance--actually, one of Serling's favorite sub-genres.

Hiley (George Clifton), an undertaker with a few unlikely talents, discovers an actress (Jennifer Toffel) resting in one of his empty coffins. She's Kansas City-bound, hoping against hope to win a role with the Shakespeare company. But Hiley doesn't operate on desire. Rather (without revealing Long's game), he proceeds from knowledge--knowledge that soon makes Ariel's head spin.

Long's dialogue could use some spinning and plucky humor, in tandem with its 1908 Missouri setting, to lift it above a wooden, proper tone which also often afflicted Serling's dialogue. At the same time, Long balances the scales of black comedy and lilac-tinged romance with a kind of indefinable gentility, and director Jay Gerber's actors keep those scales level. Ariel has a complex about her 6-foot-1 height, but Toffel, despite her fine carriage, is several inches shorter. As Ariel might understand, there are some things even the best actresses can do nothing about.

Campton's "Mrs. Meadowsweet" is more plainly an ode to "The Twilight Zone," with its English garden setting, the Respite, filled with women who appear to have lost their memories, if not their minds. Two feuding sisters on the road (Suzanne Hunt and Sharon Spelman) plan to stay here overnight, but, like the party-goers in Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel," find that they can't leave.

Campton taps not only into Serling, but also a rich vein of English surrealism that stretches from Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock to Harold Pinter. Given more surprising edges, "Mrs. Meadowsweet" could be a quietly shocking tale. But it devolves into a variant on an evil-witch yarn, complete with happy ending. Kathleen Arc's Meadowsweet comes off nicely as the Werner Erhard of the tea-and-crumpets set, but it never feels as if Hunt and Spelman have been in a cat fight. And everyone in director John Gowans' cast has "that American problem"--a weak British dialect.

Where and When

What: "Beyond the Cringe."

Location: Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Price: $5.

Call: (818) 760-4160.

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