THEATER REVIEW : Familiar Sights in Albee Land : Company of the Deaf injects life into 'Everything in the Garden,' but the play itself is unsatisfying.

April 23, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

As with few other plays by masters of the trade, you can sense the wheels spinning in Edward Albee's hobbled black comedy, "Everything in the Garden." Plowing similar ground he tended in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "A Delicate Balance"--the riddled family households of upper-class Eastern Seaboard 'burbs--his "Garden" becomes a fallow, unbountiful spot where even strained irony has a hard time growing.

L.A. Bridges Theatre Company of the Deaf artistic director Jennifer Delora has said her new group almost didn't obtain the rights to produce the play at the Gene Bua Theatre in Burbank. Albee's people, it seems, couldn't conceive of "Garden" being done by a company of mostly deaf actors performing in sign language (with a few signing actors also speaking their lines, and a corps of speaking actors, dressed in black and positioned at the lips of the stage, translating for hearing audience members).

Delora successfully fought for the rights, but you have to wonder if it was worth the battle. One problem the play does not have is some supposed unsuitability to signed performance. Any play can be signed (save perhaps a few Samuel Beckett works with characters as disembodied heads). The physical dance of hands communicating tends to charge the struggle of Albee's marrieds trying, and failing, to make contact.

Yet the play's central couple, Jenny (Delora) and Richard (Ron Kleiger) don't seem to care if they understand each other. They are stick figures in a belabored morality tale and a clumsy variation on the Genesis creation story that has Jenny tempted into prostitution by the stand-in for the serpent, Mrs. Toothe (Laura Gardner). Jenny, like Eve, is most in love with her garden, and the cash will buy a family greenhouse.

Albee wants to overlay his situation with an absurdist tone that mocks TV comedy and fairy tale elements. Thus, townspeople like Jack (Olaf Axelsen) drop by out of nowhere, Jenny's cash take is stashed in silly hiding places and the haughty Mrs. Toothe, dubbed "the fairy godmother," actually has the whole town under her thrall.

The whole affair feels as if Albee originally wrote this as a tragedy and rewrote it for laughs. But as a joke on suburban mores, "Garden" is so short of a payoff that it comes off as shy of its blackly comic potential.

Above all, the rapier wit of Albee's best work is virtually gone, with the remaining shards of humor swept away by the bland speaking voices in director Leslie Byrne's staging. Delora's Jenny, though, comes across as a woman between a rock and a hard place who refuses to play the victim.

It's at least something for Delora to hold onto, until she finds another, better play for her company.

Where and When What: "Everything in the Garden." Location: Gene Bua Theatre, 3435 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 9. Price: $15. Call: (213) 660-8587.

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