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THEATER REVIEW : Taking the Plunge Into Small-Town Quirkiness : James McLure's 'Laundry and Bourbon' boasts lively and lifelike dialogue as well as effective staging.

June 24, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Looks like all your modern conveniences are just turnin' on ya, girl," drawls uninvited neighbor Hattie upon finding that poor Elizabeth's broken air conditioner offers no relief from a sweltering summer afternoon in Maynard, Tex.

It's playwright James McLure's masterful ear for lively and lifelike dialogue like this that makes his one-act "Laundry and Bourbon" such an enjoyable plunge into small-town quirkiness. And a particularly effective staging by Santa Barbara's Theatre Pacifica proves the next best thing to a ride to Maynard in a hot dusty pickup truck.

Laundry and bourbon figure prominently in the back-porch banter between Hattie and Elizabeth in this all-woman show, reminiscent of the breezy intimacy of "Crimes of the Heart" and "Steel Magnolias," but without their sentimental excesses.

While Elizabeth (ClaireMarie Ghelardi) fusses with her laundry, Hattie (Tiffany Story), divides her attention between establishing a proper level of inebriation and imparting the latest local gossip.

Some of the gossip, unfortunately, revolves around Elizabeth herself: Her husband has run off on a carousing spree from which he may or may not return. And, she's just learned she's pregnant.

Despite brassy, down-to-earth Hattie's unfavorable opinion of the absent spouse, the more sensitive and soft-spoken Elizabeth still yearns for him. "I never felt with my body before Roy," she says, and Ghelardi infuses this simple declaration with a quiet lyricism all the more poignant for its understated delivery.

Subtlety is a foreign commodity to Story's Hattie, whose sharp tongue supplies much of the raw--sometimes very raw--comedy.

The two actresses play off each other with impeccable rhythm, not only in the cadences of their accents but in the psychological currents of the dialogue as well. Without ever breaking the comic tone, they make us realize that beneath the rambling personal reminiscences, chit-chat and even their spirited commentary on the game show contestants they're watching on Elizabeth's television, fundamental life issues for these characters are on the line.

A visit from priggish society snob Amy Lee (Jill Greenwood) in the latter part of the play provokes even funnier exchanges, particularly from Hattie in her relentless crusade to deflate Amy Lee's pretensions. Needless to say, she succeeds admirably.

Director Craig A. Hane's staging, while lively and enjoyable throughout "Laundry and Bourbon," proves less accomplished for the much shorter "Mrs. Happiness," a one-act by David Mamet, which opens the evening.

In a kind of flip side to Nathanael West's classic story, "Miss Lonelyhearts," Mrs. Happiness (Susan Jackson-Beehler) delivers advice to the masses via radio in the Chicago of the early 1940s.

Instead of being overwhelmed like West's protagonist by the pitiable humanity of the letter writers, however, Mrs. Happiness imposes her own rigid and self-centered moral framework on them. During an unbroken monologue delivered into her solitary microphone, she exhorts, cajoles and scolds in increasingly shrill, ranting terms.

Unfortunately, the flat, unwavering performance never achieves the shifts in tone and tempo required for Mamet's script.

The closing segment is an agreeable--and brief--solo dance by Tracey Lee Hunt set to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

All in all, it's a somewhat eclectic evening in which "Laundry and Bourbon" turns out to be the high point.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Laundry and Bourbon" and "Mrs. Happiness." Performed tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., 601 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $10. Running time is two hours. For reservations or further information, call 969-6964.

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