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THEATER BEAT

'A Bee' Buzzes, But It's No Honey Ending

August 27, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

According to the program, Bruce Feld's "A Bee to Honey" began as a satirical sketch, became a one-act play and finally--after "some 24 years"--grew into the "full-length" version now on trial at Theatre Geo.

But it takes more than an intermission to make a full-length play. Whatever revisions Feld added to the 1986 version ("Listen to the Duchess"), such changes didn't so much "expand" as "extend" the story. The first act is barely 30 minutes long, while the second strains toward an hour.

Nevertheless, Feld's tale about a conniving torch singer's crude opportunism contains numerous amusing lines and performances. Janice Lynde portrays Honey Bee Plaper, a gold digger from Oklahoma City desperate for "someone to watch over me." More spider than bee, Honey ignores her abysmal lack of talent while remaining happily self-deluded by blind ambition and naked greed. When the play opens, she has recently married the schizophrenic brother of a wealthy New York socialite.

Honey offers a honeymoon without love. She not only denies her groom sex, but she also hides his Thorazine. Now he's tormented by hallucinations and physical withdrawal. Honey cares only about her face in the mirror, her mother's alcoholism (a fine Joan Crosby in an underwritten role), and her husband's trust fund.

It's a tribute to Feld's characterization and Lynde's acting skills that Honey remains somehow sympathetic and never pathetic. We're fascinated by this freak of nature--feminism's worst nightmare. Thanks to Lynde's distracted manner, Honey's sadism seems innocent, even while devouring her mate.

Much of the credit for our conflicted responses must be given to James Lefebvre's inspired interpretation of mental illness. His rigid self-control, minimal movements and quivering voice combine to create an amusing but poignant breakdown.

In Act Two, Honey is back in Oklahoma City, intoxicated by her taste of money. But her rich brother-in-law arrives unexpectedly, and she falls into his golden flytrap. J. Kenneth Campbell's subtle performance shrewdly mirrors Lefebvre's disciplined style. Portraying the very together sibling of a very untogether man, Campbell's power and cunning imply a genetic connection.

But this lush minimalism, plus Jeffrey Alan Arbaugh's low-key direction, can't compensate for a minimal script. Missed opportunities abound, especially around Honey's childhood and her absent father. The construction is odd, with redundancies despite the brevity. The anticipated ending is telegraphed and disappointing.

Sometimes less is more, as in these performances. But sometimes less is simply less.

* "A Bee to Honey," Theatre Geo, 1229 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Sundays, 2 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 6. $10. (213) 462-3348. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

'Big Knife': Like a Work-in-Progress

There is a compelling reason to attend the revival of Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" in the new Academy Theatre. The reason is not the erratic production. Nor is it the play, a dated, self-pitying, guilt-laden diatribe against Hollywood that survives better on the page than the stage.

Go to celebrate the emerging Stella Adler Academy and Theatre Complex. The large 18,000-square-foot facility above the Hollywood Wax Museum contains much potential. The promised opening of the Stella Adler Theatre this fall should resemble a Hollywood premiere. Until then, its sole operating space is the Academy Theatre, a gracious, comfortable, intimate area reserved "for student productions."

That may explain the not-ready-for-prime-time status of its debut piece. Under the best of professional conditions, "The Big Knife" would remain a cumbersome vehicle. Odets' melodramatic 12-character morality play about a Hollywood star's dubious bad conscience must maintain a balanced style. But director Joshua Ravetch allows each actor to exist in his or her private moments. Some are seemingly involved with a spoof. Others flail in an imagined tragic role. Few seem capable of consistent diction. Barely off-book on opening night, the ensemble appears more confident in an indulgent two-minute period film shot for this revival.

The cumulative impact is of a workshop presentation for invited friends and family members.

* "The Big Knife," Stella Adler Academy Theatre, 2nd floor, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $12. (213) 856-5616. Running time: 3 hours.

'Hamlet': To Doubt or Not to Doubt . . .

Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark is defined by doubt. Should he or shouldn't he? Is he nuts or isn't he? At the Gene Dynarski Theater, Ramon Ramos discards all such questions. His Hamlet is confident, driven, pretentious and pompous--perhaps the first tragic Dane void of self-doubt.

Ramos has done his homework. He can copy the classic pose of John Barrymore on one knee holding aloft Yorick's skull. He surely has studied Mel Gibson's warrior-Prince. But the result is a lecture, not a heart-felt character.

Otherwise, Ron Martell's direction keeps the story swiftly moving until it seems more movie than play. Harlan Moyer squeezes every drop of humor from pompous Polonius, and Bethany Carpenter's Gertrude is an effectively sympathetic Queen. Yolanda Lloyd Delgado is not convincing as Ophelia.

The producers are promoting this "Hamlet" as "action-packed, multiracial Shakespeare . . . the way you want it--using the original script . . . at last!" But there is little that's correct, politically or otherwise, about such doubtless ambition.

* "Hamlet," Gene Dynarski Theater, 5600 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 18. $15. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes.

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