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THEATER REVIEW : Dutton Shines in 'Once in a Wifetime' : The play starts off as vigorous social satire but ends up as a predictable sex comedy.

April 03, 1993|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A perceived husband shortage among African-Americans was reported in this newspaper last Sunday. While the idea of man-sharing was mentioned briefly in the article, no one who was quoted brought up the ultimate form of man-sharing: polygamy.

Meet Willie (Charles Dutton), the husband at the center of the raucous revival of "Once in a Wifetime," at the Wilshire Theatre. Willie becomes convinced that polygamy can help "restore the black family."

He even goes so far as to cite the same 7-1 black female-male ratio that was cited in the article as an example of the bogus statistics some black men use to give themselves leverage over women.

Willie's wife, Irma (Debbi Morgan), doesn't think much of Willie's talk--and even less of his plan to wed another woman.

"Once in a Wifetime," a vigorous social satire at first, ends up as a predictable sex comedy. Still, Celeste Bedford Walker's play serves well as a vehicle for Dutton and Morgan, themselves a married couple in real life. And any vehicle that transports Dutton back to a Los Angeles stage is welcome.

Dutton was last seen exploding all over a local "legit" stage in "The Piano Lesson." But he has since frequented a local soundstage in his weekly TV sitcom "Roc."

It's appropriate that the only sitcom that's broadcast live is Dutton's, for no actor in America appears to be more alive on a stage. And all that in-the-moment energy has now returned to its natural home, the theater.

In "Once in a Wifetime," he's first spotted in the audience, observing--with the rest of us--a program at the "Center for Black Enlightenment," an outfit run by the self-styled Pan-Africanist Kweli (Robert F. Ellerbee), who has three wives.

Willie has been fooling around with a girlish, 23-year-old member of Kweli's group, Nwanyeruwa (Judy Milner), and she wants him to marry her--without divorcing Irma. The two women can become "sisters."

Cut to Willie's and Irma's rather upscale living room. After Willie finally musters the courage to mention his plan to Irma, the combat begins.

In the play's first scenes, Dutton has to hold his natural bulldozer tendencies in check now and then; Willie is depicted as hard-working but henpecked. Dutton does it with consummate skill, using the contrast between his own stout figure and Willie's timidity in front of his wife for all that it's worth.

But despite his initial fear and Irma's throw-the-bum-out reaction, Willie somehow manages to bring Nwanyeruwa home, along with Kweli and a contingent of his followers, to meet Irma and complete a wedding ceremony. And despite Irma's continued opposition, the "slut" (in Irma's words) gets to stay.

The play has dated since its appearance in the late '70s. Even though the couple is childless after 10 years of marriage, Irma has never held a job, as her gabby mother (Carla Louise) points out to her. Playwright Walker stepped too lightly around the implications of this. Irma is materialistic, yet it looks as if she has no one to blame but herself for the economic dependence that apparently prevents her from walking out on Willie.

But the only one who gets his comeuppance in Act Two is Willie. And it's engineered in an awfully pat, familiar fashion--he gets A Taste of His Own Medicine, when a suave West Indian lothario (T. R. Riggins) conveniently drops into the plot (what took him so long?).

This is after Willie's two wives have a cheesy scene in which they both try to seduce him on the same night by wearing dueling nightclothes. Willie finds this spectacle excessive, and he's right.

So the play, at first a promising mix of sexual warfare and cultural clash, degenerates into pap. It's hardly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A loud but faltering sound system is no help.

Still, Dutton is fully present, and Morgan holds up her end of the battle. Under Glynn Turman's direction, the supporting players also land most of their comic grenades on target.

"Once in a Wifetime," Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Today at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $17.50-$27.50. (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Charles Dutton: Willie

Debbi Morgan: Irma

Judy Milner: Nwanyeruwa

Robert F. Ellerbee: Kweli

Carla Louise: Clytie

T.R. Riggins: Emile

Wynonna Smith: Amina

Monica J. Palmer: Mbili

La'Rae Martin: Jua

A comedy by Celeste Bedford Walker. Produced by Barry Hankerson. Presented by Jeff Sharp of Stageright Productions. Co-produced by Marvin Wright-Bey. Directed by Glynn Turman. Set designer Edward Haynes Jr. Scenic designer Tony Moses. Costumes by Fontella Boone. Lights by Harold Moore and John Osborne. Production manager Jacqueline Reeves.

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