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STAGE REVIEW : Unlocking Vast Riches : Casting at the Gnu Theatre helps carry off Ronald Ribman's masterwork, "Cold Storage."

February 12, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

As a foreign visitor once told this writer, you can tell a lot about Americans by the way they sell meat in the markets: neatly packaged in nice plastic foam containers. The wish to stay at arm's length from the raw meat of existence pertains to many American playwrights as well. But not Ronald Ribman, and certainly not Ribman's intimate masterwork, "Cold Storage."

If there's a problem with the play, it's that the intensive back-and-forth exchange among Ribman's cancer ward patients is damnably difficult to carry off. The last Los Angeles production, with Richmond Shepard in 1982, proved this all too well. And yet Jeff Seymour's staging at the Gnu Theatre proves just as convincingly that casting is the secret to unlocking "Cold Storage's" vast riches.

It's tempting, for instance, to turn Parmigian (Len Lesser), the older, terminal patient, into a yammering mouthpiece of Wisdom. And equally tempting to turn Landau (Alan Feinstein), the younger patient checked in merely for "an exploratory," into a listening post growing wearier by the minute of listening. That's a very effective way of warping "Cold Storage" into a deadly one-character piece, with convenient character props along for the ride.

Instead, Seymour's cast has tapped into the play's tragic underbelly, in all its complications. In the early stages of his illness, Parmigian kept his mind limber reading "The Faerie Queen" with his nurse, who is now Landau's (Magda Rivera). Now, he mentally works out creating little fictions from one moment to the next, taking Landau down jokey dead-ends, changing his mind--all, it appears, for the hell of it.

Like a good plotter, Parmigian has mastered misdirection, but it's also directed at us. Sounding offensively anti-Semitic to the Jewish Landau one minute, the Armenian Parmigian claims his Arabic blood links him with the Jews, and then he flashes a B'nai B'rith membership card.

Who is this guy? Actually, Parmigian has it right: He and Landau are linked, as ironic survivors in this unpopulated hospital roof garden, as members of two groups that suffered 20th-Century holocausts. On Seymour's unrelentingly institutional set, they begin to seem like the last men on Earth.

It's precisely the illusion--or the reality--that Ribman wants to create. Lesser and Feinstein bolster the strikingly literary text (Parmigian: "Real suffering is a catastrophe without language"), not only with a deep emotional understanding of these men, but with something more. They understand that this is not a disease play, but an unease play, about two figures nervously groping toward's life's absurd heart before their bodies fail them. Theirs are performances that obey Ribman's call to unwrap the meat in the nice package, and look unflinchingly inside.

Where and When What: "Cold Storage." Location: Gnu Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through March 7. Price: $15 to $20. Call: (818) 508-5344.

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