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THEATER REVIEW : Mind-Numbing Drama Puts Audience in Spotlight


SIERRA MADRE — Author Ayn Rand, the fierce libertarian famous for "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," is not well-known for her courtroom mystery play, "The Night of January 16," and it's easy to see why in the production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

To be fair to the cast, Olivier and the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn't salvage this stiff. The play, written in 1935, Rand's first stab at literary publication after arriving in the United States from her native Russia, is all courtroom blarney. Basically, it's like watching an old "Perry Mason" TV show, except the audience gets to play the jurors.

Rand, who isn't given a historical note in the program, as if the play were written yesterday, was obviously just getting her feet wet as a writer, taking a dip into commercial theater in the middle of the Depression. Speaking of which, the play is full of 1930s-era references but the program says "the time is the present." That's the least of the problems.

Why this play, which is centered on the trial of a nefarious woman (the glaring Rena J. Trujillo) accused of murdering her rich cad of a lover, continues to thrive on the community theater circuit is the real mystery. Then again, where else can patrons walk onstage and play at being in a play?

Twelve audience members are chosen at random for the jury before the show begins. There's no denying that this feature is popular with audiences. Forty minutes before curtain time, theatergoers were lined up down to the corner as if waiting to see "Jurassic Park."

Unfortunately, the jurors face the audience, not the witness stand. This awkward seating by director John Francis creates problems: Half the jurors have an obscured view of who's testifying. And when addressing the jury, the efficiently cool prosecutor (played by Andrea Stradling) and dogged defense attorney (Richard Large) must stand with their backs to the audience. This forces the two actors into a kind of sideways stance, hoping to play to both worlds.

But the jurors were good sports. Their eyes didn't wander and they worked at looking attentive.

The audience-jurors decide the outcome of the trial. Thus, any night the decision may be guilty or innocent. That's the way Rand wrote the play, a gimmick used by other playwrights since but one that must have seemed innovative in 1935.

Another audience-participation feature is the yammering parade of witnesses who emerge from seats in front or back of you, troop to the stage and take the stand. Mind you these are actors, not patrons, with a parade of colorful foreign accents.

As for the jurors materializing from the house seats, the effect is intended to make you feel as if you are sitting in a courtroom. Such an effect would be fine, if only the trial itself weren't a mind-numbing, hackneyed entanglement of lust and greed.

Yaddayaddayadda. The experience is like listening to someone read an impossibly convoluted dime detective novel.

The Playhouse, which has staged such fine works in the last two seasons as "Morning's at Seven," "Golden Boy" and "Dames at Sea," will undoubtedly bounce back. The future looks brighter already. Next up: Neil Simon's "California Suite," followed by "Dracula."

* "The Night of January 16"

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd.; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday; ends July 17. $10. (818) 355-4318. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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