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THEATER BEAT

'Tina Marie' Has Some Growing Up to Do

January 14, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You won't mistake Tina Marie for Norma Desmond. Nor will you confuse "Happy Birthday Tina Marie" with "Sunset Boulevard." Although both are forgotten film stars, Tina is living proof of Norma's famous comment: "I'm still big. It's the pictures that got small."

At the Odyssey, Craig Thornton's black comedy boasts an impressive cast, anchored by Rhonda Aldrich's intolerably self-indulgent Tina. On the former teen idol's 36th birthday, Tina mourns her hit pictures, such as "College Co-Ed Massacre." "I am holding my breath," Tina screams at her guests, "until I get to play a battered wife!"

Thornton aspires to playwright Joe Orton's level of farce. Tina's mother (a strong but bafflingly conceived Sandy Martin) is murdered with a pogo stick, then stuffed into a closet, only to tumble out like the corpse in Orton's "Loot." Resembling a twin to Orton's outrageous hustlers, Tina fondles Barbie dolls and uses male prostitutes as if they're sexual toys.

But Orton insisted that motivation must remain strictly in character. Here, characters emerge without much logic, then exit when it's convenient for the playwright. The sudden arrival of Tina's welfare-cheat mother from Ohio is absurd. When Tina's agent (an amusing Ron Litman) and manager (a droll and shrewdly underplayed Sheila Traviss) fall prey to her mother's obvious manipulation, we've left Tinseltown and arrived in Never-Never Land. The amusing antics of another fallen child star, Skippy (a delicious Chuck LaFont), get eclipsed by his ridiculous rape of the preposterous callboy (Adam Biesk).

There are flashes of brilliance and wit in both the writing and acting, but director Gretchen Somerfeld would be wise to order revisions. "Happy Birthday Tina Marie" needs development through a workshop before it's ready for a close-up.

* "Happy Birthday Tina Marie," Odyssey Theatre, 2056 Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 4 p.m. Ends Feb . 6. $13. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

'Bomb' Visits Future Decimated by AIDS

*

"After the Bomb" bombs so utterly that you wish it could be dismissed without further comment. Alas, Open Fist Theatre's producers claim this is the first play about AIDS by a woman with AIDS. Former television scriptwriter Roxy Ventola began writing "After the Bomb" some eight months after losing her husband and 2-year-old daughter to the disease. Although it's painfully obvious this is Ventola's first play, Connie Chung screened rehearsals for the television program "Eye to Eye."

"After the Bomb" is set in the 21st Century. An emcee announces that the plague decimated entire countries. Fragments of plays have been discovered in the ruins of a former capital called Washington. These were created by AIDS carriers interned in camps. Now, a formally dressed pianist and flutist offer saccharine musical accompaniment to the fragments by "terminal internees."

The focus is muddled, even when a so-called Black Widow explains how she's deliberately infecting government leaders (including the United States President) in order to force the rich and powerful to fund a cure. (Playwright Michael Kearns brilliantly conceived a similar crusader in last year's "off.") The most memorable character (and performance, by Marc Sandler), is a doctor christened "Hero" wearing a cloak made from the AIDS quilt.

Director Ziad H. Hamzeh orchestrates the 28-character sketches as if they were a futurist "Marat-Sade." Bedlam rules pieces with titles such as "Fever." The company, dressed in hospital gowns, forms an ensemble evoking memories of '60s Theatre of Cruelty experiments. Unfortunately, the underlying sentimentality and overwhelming self-indulgence cancel out the aesthetic ambition. "Bomb" resembles an after-school television special by Antonin Artaud, or a Sunday School church pageant by "Star Trek" fanatics.

* "After the Bomb," Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave . , Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. $15. (213) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

'Crucible' Revival Is Up to the Test

*

It can be a pleasure to see a well-made play well-done, and Company of Angels interprets contemporary American classics as well as any theater in Southern California. Its current revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is crisply staged, reverently performed and faithful to the playwright's text. Miller's occasionally long-winded sermon on Salem's witch trials still stumbles toward the end; the last act struggle of conscience by John Proctor (a stiff Glen Lutz) rarely works. But in our age of politically correct thinking, the play's relevance survives.

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