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THEATER REVIEW : Unlocking the Laughs in 'Baldpate' : Group Repertory Theatre takes the broad road in its production of George M. Cohan's comedy thriller. But the script calls for a more subtle approach.

February 26, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

The problem most directors have with George M. Cohan's classic 1913 comedy thriller, "Seven Keys to Baldpate," is that word "comedy." It certainly is that, but just as certainly misses the whole point if it's played for comedy. "Baldpate" has to be played straight to get its proper laughs, a trick Cohan was famous for.

In this production at Group Repertory Theatre, director Malcolm Atterbury Jr. not only throws in some sight gags that break the spell, but allows most of his actors to overact in an attempt to provide humor they probably don't realize is already written into the script.

The play is a satire of the thriller genre, which the playwright "Cohanized" (his own term) from the successful novel by Earl Derr Biggers. Cohan was his era's epitome of natural acting, playing it straight no matter how outlandish his scripts were. And this plot is certainly outlandish. For those who aren't familiar with the story, it concerns a pulp novelist who makes a bet with the owner of Baldpate Inn that he can write a successful book in 24 hours in the solitude of the off-season hostelry.

Presuming his key to be the only one, novelist Billy Magee (the Cohan role) soon discovers there are six more keys. They provide entrance to standard melodrama characters, crooked politicians, gunmen, widows, etc. The fun is in their deadpan pursuit of their dastardly aims. Very little of that fun results from Atterbury's campy staging.

Some of the acting is realistic enough to work in a more stylish production. Christopher Winfield is close on target as Magee, a wise-cracking smart guy who grows less confident as the action whirls around him. So is his love interest, reporter Mary Norton, played by Nancy Hochman with proper sweetness and enough charm to make Billy fall at first sight. John J. Flynn, Jr.'s police chief is pretty much the crusty rural type he's supposed to be, without going overboard.

Others in the cast depend on funny walks and gestures, mugging and accents that are way too broad (Geraldine Allen, as the caretaker's wife has a Southern accent--odd sounding in the Catskills). Not to give away the final gag for the uninitiated, none of them is what they seem, and the acting style is out of bounds even for what they are.

Atterbury's set design, though sparse in detail, looks right, and M. J. Mitchell's lighting is adequate, but the storm effects, integral to the mood, are minimal. Shon Le Blanc's costumes are just right for this script's 1938 setting, although the original 1913 period is always more effective in accuracy to style, both for the satire and the genre it skewers.

Where and When What: "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Where: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Indefinitely. Price: $10. Call: (818) 769-7529.

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