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THEATER REVIEW : 'Call Me' Has an Urgent Ring Despite Its Hang-Ups : Backstage's Al Valletta dives into the melancholy tragedy of one-man play.

April 21, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — The program notes for the Backstage Theatre's production of Tony Webster's "Call Me Back" inform us that the play's initial life was as a 1961 TV drama, with Art Carney as Tom, the harried ad man who drinks himself into oblivion as he tries to touch base with friends and loved ones by phone.

At the time, this tragi-comic one-man play probably served as a strategic career move for Carney, who was then known to the world as Norton, Jackie Gleason's neighbor on "The Honeymooners."

Now, it serves as a kind of vanity showing for Backstage artistic director Al Valletta. The stocky Valletta may be superficially a very different kind of actor from the then-scrawny Carney, but each has a pugnacity that serves Tom's absolute need to connect--even though everyone seems to hang up on him.

At a certain point, we want to as well, but for different reasons. It's in Tom's nature to insult people, and, naturally, they eventually can't take it anymore.

But since we're eavesdropping on Tom, we can see that he really wants to end the conversations, only he lets the other parties do it for him.

It's an intriguing character flaw, the most intriguing thing about Tom. Once it's established, though, Webster has no equally interesting direction for Tom to take. And we have to sit through all the insults and hang-ups.

That's a shame, too, because Valletta's approach, under Pete Taylor's direction, offers glimpses of real demons that could be unleashed at any moment. Just as he's aware of the phone games he's playing with his ex-boss or ex-wife or estranged father, he's cognizant of how people put him off, and he fights it with the witty rejoinders of a beleaguered urban man.

Tom is trying to get back in his ex-boss's favor--for a job, not his goodwill--but when he's told for the umpteenth time that the boss is in a meeting, Tom wonders if the meetings are electronically triggered when he calls. At another point, he tells a friendly operator that he's "being torn down under a zoning law." Tom's a New York survivor, but his survival kit is getting depleted.

His only lifesaver, in fact, is his daughter, Fran, who lives with her mother. The little girl is the reminder of Tom's lost opportunities and shattered family life, but a friend nevertheless. She's also a vehicle for the play's slide into the maudlin, especially after Tom learns that he missed their date to go to the circus.

Eventually, no matter what witty asides Webster tosses in, it's simply not funny watching a middle-aged drunk chug down pills with his whiskey. Talking to his stuffed animals won't do it, nor will trying to stage a bank holdup by phone.

But as the rings seem to grow under Valletta's eyes, and his paunch grows larger, and his back stoops more, you see the image of an actor plunging headfirst into mortality.

*

Vanity performance it may be, but Valletta's act of losing himself in Tom's collapse recalls not so much Carney as Philip Baker Hall's Richard Nixon in "Secret Honor." Like Hall's Nixon, Valletta's Tom is a haunted man willingly destroying himself by consciously dismantling everything that kept his life together.

This is more of an actor's tragic gesture than the play's, but when you're the only actor on stage, it counts for a lot.

* "Call Me Back," Backstage Theatre, 1599 Superior Ave., Costa Mesa. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 22. $12-$15. (714) 646-5887. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Al Valletta: Tom Wilson

A Backstage Theatre production. Written by Tony Webster. Directed by Pete Taylor. Set design by Rebecca May. Music by Christine Whitaker. Production stage manager: Wayne Mayberry.

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