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THEATER REVIEW : Street Banter Laced With Tragedy : Writer-director-star Woody Harrelson deftly shows how the best intentions will misfire when life is as tough and unyielding as seen in 'Furthest From the Sun.'

April 07, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

It takes more than a few minutes to get under the skin of Woody Harrelson's new play at the Tiffany Theatre, "Furthest From the Sun." Part of the reason lies in the characters themselves: relatively inarticulate men, only intermittently employed, struggling to stay alive on the lower rungs of society.

They are not homeless--yet--but they lead marginal lives. Three of them share a run-down, furnished apartment and a lot of beer, marijuana and talk. They are not thugs, but there is a lot of stuff pent up in each of them, especially Brett (played by triple-threat Harrelson, who also directs), a young man with a difficult childhood to outgrow, and Frank (Tom Wright), a cocky African-American good at concealing his demons.

The third roommate, Denny (Clint Allen), is a tamer sort who, given time and patience, may--with a little luck--make it into some sort of relatively tranquil life.

A fourth character, Dwight (Michael Harris), is a wisecracking dopehead and dealer who drops in from time to time, apparently keeping Frank and Brett supplied with their favorite weed--and indebted to him financially.

Into this volatile mixture inject Jackie (Gina Ravarra), a smart, African-American corporate type who falls for Frank when he applies for a job with her company. The romance that ensues triggers various revelations. Deftly, Harrelson shows us that the line between confession and betrayal is paper thin and that one often leads to the other, eventually bringing down the entire house of cards.

"Furthest From the Sun" may take its time driving this point home, but by the time it does we are thoroughly caught up in the maelstrom of events, and the fabric of at least three of these lives: Jackie, Brett and Frank, whose interpersonal exchanges lead not just to drama but to tragedy.

What Harrelson is after--much as was playwright David Steen in "Avenue A," his 1991 award-winning play based on a similar strata of volatile, violent men--is to show how the best intentions will misfire when life is as tough and unyielding as the ones these guys face.

Harrelson has a terrific ear for the casual joshing that characterizes the way these men talk. They pummel each other with words, distinctly establishing each persona--from Denny's sweetness to Frank's brash show of self-confidence and Brett's carefully concealed self-hate.

Dwight and Jackie are less developed, with the former largely defined by a collection of knee-jerk responses and the latter being simply more blurred at the edges.

One of the least persuasive aspects of this plot is Jackie's attraction to Frank. Frank spells feral charm, but he also clearly spells trouble. You can feel it from the start. And given the social distance between them, it's hard to believe that Jackie would allow herself to get so deeply involved.

Either the original encounter needs to be redrawn or the terms of their endearment strengthened and clarified, which should not be too difficult. Dwight's character is never sufficiently involved in the central action to matter as much as Jackie's, though he does, in the end, prove pivotal to the play.

In general, Harrelson takes too much time getting to his point, but when he does the piece comes together beautifully, in a suspenseful, devastating finale.

The moral, if there is one, is that having fallen below a certain level of existence may make it impossible to scramble out. The more Frank and Brett in particular try to dig themselves out, the deeper they sink into the quagmire.

The acting in "Furthest" is uniformly strong, with Wright cutting a rich, compelling figure as the sharp, fast-talking, aching Frank, and Harrelson as a more helpless wreck of a young man, bulldozing his way through life by mowing everything down.

Harris, to whom irony and derision seem to be second nature, is a natural as the cowardly Dwight--a brutish fellow calloused by years of drugs and alcohol and stunned by his own action at the end.

Ravarra has the hardest job with Jackie, who is still not much more than a pencil sketch. In spite of that, she makes us believe the woman's concern and humiliation.

You might call "Furthest From the Sun" a buddy play with serious consequences, or a jock play where the banter, cocky and funny at first, turns profoundly tragic.

Perhaps because director Harrelson, being in the play himself, cannot monitor the actors from out front, too many scenes at Sunday's performance were either garbled in delivery or spoken too softly and therefore hard to hear.

This may not be Shakespeare, but attention still must be paid. The words must get out. For one thing Harrelson knows the language of the streets. For another, he has plenty to say worth hearing.

* "Furthest From the Sun," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 18. $15; (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Clint Allen: Denny Woody Harrelson: Brett Tom Wright: Frank Michael Harris: Dwight Gina Ravarra: Jackie

A presentation of Children at Play Productions. Producers Grif Griffis, Clint Allen. Director Woody Harrelson. Playwright Woody Harrelson. Sets Michael Crowell. Lights Pamela M. Reese. Wardrobe Andrea Burrows. Composers Jerry Joseph, Woody Harrelson. Stage manager Pamela M. Reese.

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