She has been compared to Lily Tomlin in the way she creates screwed up and screwy characters. She looks a little like a diminutive Shirley MacLaine. She behaves on occasion like a female Spalding Gray on serious amphetamines.
But Ann Magnuson, whose "You Could Be Home Now" opened during the weekend at the Coast Playhouse after a successful run last fall at Joe Papp's Public Theatre in New York, is very much . . . Ann Magnuson.
So no more analogies and no facile takes. Magnuson, who is probably best known by the public at large for the wacky editor she played on ABC's now defunct sitcom "Anything but Love," merely reminds one of these people. She neither imitates nor emulates them in her rambling, disconnected, always subjective one-person show.
Disconnection here has another meaning. More like dislocation, and it eminently suits the content of this show: A kind of free-associative rumination on a dysfunctional, largely urban society gone to seed that has unconscionably allowed her American dream to die.
That's what gives "You Could Be Home Now" its unusual, sometimes eerie, sometimes dreamy quality. A certain placidity of manner. A pained fragility behind the matter-of-fact delivery of the words, as if something back there were ready to break. Regret, not anger, locked in very dry humor.
When she tells us that the mayor of her hometown of Charleston, W. Va., couldn't come to "Famous Persons Day" (a real event at which she was being honored) because he'd been brought up on charges of cocaine possession, she doesn't miss a beat. "We're looking forward to his 1,100 hours of community service," she purrs in her best Ladies' Auxiliary tones.
Magnuson is a response to that tight, white, Southern upbringing to which, at the same time and by her own admission, she remains emotionally connected. It is the wit with which she uses this contradiction of affection and disdain--and so much other ambivalence about the world--that's disarming.
It all begins when she steps on stage with a flashlight and finds, in the attic of her mind, an old diary from which she reads aloud. The event she relates dates to her childhood in that Southern Victorian enclave of Charleston--her own acidulated Grovers' Corners. It describes in detail the death of a puppy run over by a truck: first the front wheels, then the back.
The vocal restraint in contrast to the violent, bloody mess it takes such pains to outline, is this show in a nutshell. Appeal first, shock later. "It's not necessary to apologize for your small, insignificant life," she says magnanimously to a small-town idolater. "We need dentists and stuff."
Most chilling of her implicit commentaries perhaps (the more chilling because they are implicit) is the tale of the German hitchhiker given a ride by a trucker--and the trucker's self-effacing wife then talking about her husband who is sitting in jail for having raped and killed a hitchhiker.
David Schweizer's sensitive direction carefully times such left hooks but there's not much he can do to animate the portion of other not quite so incisive characters in the gallery: the de rigueur homeless person, the former sitcom star forced to tackle real estate or the perfect housewife who can't explain her crying jags (this one modeled on Magnuson's mother).
We've met them before.
Aside from a healthy share of self-directed irony and her cautionary tale about becoming "an overnight sensation after 15 years," Magnuson is at her best zapping the audience with keen observations cloaked in throwaway lines, such as the inability to find "home" in a subdivision where all the houses look exactly alike. Or her lament for the passing of permanence. "Nothing stays the same," she muses. Not the airlines, not the Sears catalogue.
"After a while you turn into a character from an Anne Rice novel." If you haven't read Anne Rice, that's your problem. Magnuson loves the oblique cultural reference and the name-dropping that requires an audience to know what she's talking about.
It's the show's greatest appeal for the hip audiences that flock to see her, but it's also its Achilles' heel. Hipness is elitist in an ephemeral, trendy way. It virtually guarantees an expiration date.
But as a commentator on the contemporary scene--a sophisticated white upper-middle-class urban present--her performance bristles with intelligence.
What is the home you could be in now? An America gone wacko? A bedroom in "Bauhaus S&M with Laura Ashley prints"? We're not quite sure. But the Coast Playhouse is a good substitute for a loopy couple of hours.
* "You Could Be Home Now," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends April 11. $15; (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.