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THEATER REVIEW : Comedy Turns Dark : A terminal illness creates a serious undercurrent in 'The Melville Boys,' a play about two brothers that starts out looking like a lighter work.

March 19, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most of its time, Canadian playwright Norm Foster's "The Melville Boys," at Theatre East, looks like a comedy about bonding, male and otherwise. In a way it is. But something is mentioned early on that takes it out of that too-easy niche.

Lee Melville and his younger brother Owen are spending the weekend at their uncle's cottage in northeastern Canada for a little fishing, some of that bonding and whatever adventures may befall. Then Lee drops an offhand hint about the treatments he's supposed to start on Monday. He has only about a year to live.

This time is for the brothers to get some things straight. Owen doesn't want to talk about it. He just wants to fish; that is, until he spots two young women in a boat on the lake. Lee and Owen don't get too much talking done.

The subject isn't forgotten, though. The women, Mary and Loretta, spend the night and find out about Lee's fate.

This is a delicate play, in spite of its surface bravado, and the gradual build to its dramatic climax is artfully handled by director Stu Berg. He knows how to keep its skin-deep tone of surface banter tightly drawn over the serious undercurrent. He also knows just where the step-by-step building blocks are as its shading slowly darkens.

In spite of a tendency for all the actors to let their vocal delivery lose energy in quiet moments, the emotional energy is supercharged throughout. Vince McKewin's dying Lee never becomes self-conscious or self-pitying, and his calm, mature approach suits the role perfectly. Paul Witten's Owen, the younger brother who always found it easier to follow in his father's and Lee's footsteps, and who finally admits that he won't know what to do when Lee is gone, is volatile and at moments highly comic. As Owen desperately tries to keep from solving his problem, Witten's transition from mixed-up machismo to little boy lost is impressive.

Adrienne Hampton and Rhonda Lee Dorton are excellent as the sisters, just as disparate as the Melville boys and just as at odds with their lives and each other, and with the same truthful balance of humor.

"The Melville Boys" is not an easy play, with its wide range of dramatic values, its subtlety and numerous pitfalls, and its juxtaposed comedy and drama. This production sorts it out with style and honesty, nicely framed in Mary E. Murdock's charming, authentic cabin setting, under warm, summery lighting designed by Robert Lowry.

Where and When What: "The Melville Boys." Location: Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 18. Price: $12. Call: (310) 285-3556.

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