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Far-Too-Short 'Trip' at Friends and Artists


A single disappointment mars "The Trip," but it's major: At one act, the comic odyssey ends too soon.

After driving cross-country from Chicago to Los Angeles, we want to remain in the car with these self-described "sistahs." They're Thelma and Louise without the guns, female Kerouacs and Cassidys on the road, a quartet of Supremes laughing and feuding in the fast lane. But playwright Crystal V. Rhodes brings her girls to the West Coast only to send them immediately back home.

We see numerous motives for the fast exit out of the Friends and Artists Theatre. A low-budget rental car missing a radio can undermine feminism's best intentions.

These African-American women have been planning their dream trip since high school. "Don't look back!" they vow. Easy riders? No way! JoAnne (Michole Briana White) can't stop kvetching. Ginny (Julie Ann Lucas) incessantly chews gum. Shy "little Miss Perfect" Nikki (Lynette Lane) suddenly discovers self-assertion and a wicked tongue. Victoria (Bridgid Coulter) is obsessed with her ex-husband.

Director Don Cheadle applies the best of avant-garde choreography to the journey. Using only four chairs and luggage, Cheadle concentrates on the performer's acrobatic body language and musical rhythms. The minimal staging is supported by mime, taped voice-overs during brief blackouts, and an ensemble rapping like seasoned session artists.

After motel hells, wrong turns, traffic tickets, indiscretions and confessions, there are reasons for ending "The Trip" prematurely. Nothing ruins a getaway faster than memories of home. "Thank you Lord for taking me out of the projects," Nikki prays. But these girls can't escape their pasts. Looking back, they miss the view.

Looking forward, we hope Rhodes writes a second act that sends her "sistahs" on the road again.

* "The Trip," Friends and Artists Theatre, 1761 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 10:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Sept . 5. $10. (213) 664-0680. Running time: 1 hour.

Seasoned Pros Make 'Game' a Winner

Jack LaZebnik's obviously a deep thinker. His play at the Fountainhead Theatre, "The Billiard Game," confronts life's most profound question: Why live? While searching for an answer, LaZebnik's college professors seem to quote every author in the Great Books of the Western World library. Dialogue crowded with lines from Socrates, Descartes, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer should become the answer to an insomniac's nightmares.

But it's a tribute to LaZebnik, director Kevin Kelley and four masterful actors that "The Billiard Game" transforms academic pretension into compelling drama. Indeed, pedantic detachment fuels the plot.

For 35 years, "The Four Musketeers of Truth" have ritually met for a billiards game. But now, at age 85, one member of their fraternity has decided they must "celebrate the end of my sentence on Earth." The professor illustrates his lecture by exhibiting a loaded pistol.

How to persuade the professor that life is worth living? By reason, of course. During their debate, the billiards game continues. Gradually, other uncomfortable truths emerge--painful discoveries of sexual betrayals. By the end of the game, the question becomes: Can any of them go on?

LaZebnik backs off from the existential ending that his philosophical revelations require. Also, he indulges excessively in one teacher's rage about an ex-wife's betrayals, while abbreviating the others' epiphanies.

But the play's flaws are overshadowed by superb performances. It's a rare privilege to observe seasoned pros like Fred Ornstein, Apollo Dukakis, Alan Bergmann and Jacob Witkin working at the center of a drama instead of on the margins. Indeed, their subtle craftsmanship resolves the play's thesis. By living long, they've mastered their art.

* "The Billiard Game," Fountainhead Theatre, 1110 N. Hudson Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m. $15-$17.50. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours.

Lee Kissman Fearless in 'Snake in the Vein'

Like a snake, Lee Kissman rarely fails to rivet our focus. The relatively unheralded actor excels in extreme parts for marginal underground plays. A fearless risk-taker, he always appears to be dancing naked on a razor's edge without a net. In "A Snake in the Vein" at the Lost Studio Theatre, Kissman has found yet another bleak role that perfectly fits his style: a heroin addict down to his last vein, in search of a final orgasmic fix.

Unfortunately, Alan Bowne's one-act play teeter-totters on a playground of self-pity, self-parody and X Generation Angst . Two junkies must share a room in a rehab center--an aged, flamboyant drag queen (Kissman) and a homophobic rock musician (Christopher Gartin, earnestly suffering despite a contrived role). Kissman's predator is hilarious, although much of his humor must be delivered in soliloquies to a playwriting gimmick--a pet hand puppet.

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