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'Nine Ball' Makes the Corner Pocket : Jarman's 'Nine Ball' Makes the Corner Pocket

June 04, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Cheers" may close, but Uncle Frank's bar stays open forever . . . literally. At the Gardner Stages, it's no accident that the subtitle to Donald Wayne Jarman's "Nine Ball" is "Reflections From Purgatory."

Jarman has brewed a potent mix of "Groundhog Day," "Twilight Zone" and "No Exit." His good-old-bar-boys possess the sarcastic humor of Bill Murray, the sci-fi whimsy of Rod Serling and the despair of Sartre's classic "hell is other people."

A few small-town buddies are playing pool after hours. Or is it after life? A red light interrupts the blustering talk. Suddenly, the gang stiffens like statues while a bitter old man (beautifully rendered by James Ingersoll) tells us, "(Nine-ball pool) wasn't a game. It was our religion."

Gradually, we realize the old man is repeatedly observing a tragic night in his past. His angry young self (a fierce Allen P. Schneider) again falls off the wagon, again verbally abuses his buddies. Drunken violence grows more inevitable.

The old man still follows the code that ruled the gang at Uncle Frank's. Jarman slyly comments on the curse of machismo as well as on alcoholism. His fourth staged play in two years, "Nine Ball" reveals a gift for hard-boiled dialogue and for directing a large cast. His dedicated ensemble seamlessly maneuvers Jarman's complex, jagged rhythms.

Although impeccably performed and realized, "Nine Ball" has its flaws as a story. Repetitive bar talk, no matter how hilarious, eventually teeters like a tiresome drunk. But if Alcoholics Anonymous ever wants an anti-beer commercial, "Nine Ball" would be the perfect morality play.

*"Nine Ball," the Gardner Stages, 1501 N. Gardner Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12. (818) 753-7620. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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