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THEATER REVIEW : 'Joined at the Head' . . . and the Heart : Reminiscent of 'Steel Magnolias,' Catherine Butterfield's play at the Pasadena Playhouse avoids easy sentiment and turns out to be a funny, surprisingly unaffecting work.

January 19, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Throughout Catherine Butterfield's "Joined at the Head," at the Pasadena Playhouse, the main fixture of the set is a giant, upright square that looks at first like a chalkboard. There are no words or images on it, but neither is it a completely blank slate. It looks as if someone's earlier work has been erased.

The big slate, designed by James Noone, later becomes transparent enough to reveal a hospital bed on the other side. In conjunction with events in the play, it suggests that our carefully inscribed impressions of our lives--and other people's lives as "backdrop" to our own--can quickly be erased after closer examination or after an unexpected turn of events.

We're talking about cancer here. From a brief description of the play's premise--a best-selling author meets and likes the cancer-stricken wife of her high school boyfriend--"Joined at the Head" sounds like another women's bonding-and-disease play--like, say, "Steel Magnolias." That impression might be fed by the fact that Pamela Berlin, who directed "Magnolias" at the Playhouse, is back with "Joined at the Head."

These subjects certainly are present within "Joined at the Head," but this is no tear-jerker. It's a surprisingly affable play. And also a surprisingly unaffecting one.

Maggie (Robin Pearson Rose) is promoting her latest book in Boston when her former boyfriend, unseen in 20 years, invites her to dinner with his wife. It turns out the wife (playwright Butterfield) also is named Maggy, but with a y. She was a cheerleader at the same school, but she was one class behind Maggie and Jim. Back then, she noticed them more than they noticed her.

The grown-up women like each other a lot. It's almost as if they're different halves of the same woman. Then again, they've just met. And Maggy has cancer. They won't have a long time to sort out and enjoy their friendship.

So Butterfield's script does that work for them. It consciously undercuts potential sentiment with amusing momentary asides to the audience or with whole dialogues that occur between characters, living or dead, in which they comment on events in the play--such as whether the other characters are "romanticizing" the facts.

Maggie, who's more flustered about all of this than the others, apologizes to the audience for interrupting the flow of the play: "I didn't mean this to be a Brechtian evening. I was hoping you'd be able to indulge your emotions from time to time."

Of course, this isn't a Brechtian evening. Butterfield's style--also seen in her short "The Backflip," which served as a curtain-raiser for "Northern Lights" in Hollywood last fall--is more playfully Pirandellian than Brechtian. All three of the principal characters have a keen sense of humor, which is the biggest reason we like them so much.

Despite the purported de-romanticizing, however, these people still look too good to be true. Would the two women really forge such a strong bond in what appears to be two brief encounters? Even if they would, the ease with which they do it doesn't help the momentum of the play.

Though Butterfield kept the role of Maggy for herself, she based her play on an experience in which she played the Maggie role. Accordingly, Maggy and Jim actually are backdrop to Maggie. It's too bad that professional achiever Maggie is otherwise so alone and friendless. This borders on cliche, and an overly schematic one at that. But Rose has a clear view of Maggie's foggy feelings, and sharp comic timing as well.

Butterfield's performance gives Maggy a serene glow, despite her cancer ravages, that's lovely to behold. Perhaps a little too lovely.

Though Allin looks too boyish and shipshape for someone in Jim's state of mind, he makes much of what he's given. Jim often virtually freezes while the women do their Pirandellian shtick. But as recompense, Allin gets a silently intense moment in Act I, and a juicy (if somewhat awkwardly placed) monologue in Act II.

Six other actors play many minor roles well, often for comic effect. This play has its funny and lyrical moments. But its ultimate impact remains elusive.

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* "Joined at the Head," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 20. $33.50-$40. (818) 356-PLAY or (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Robin Pearson Rose: Maggie Mulroney

Jeff Allin: Jim Burroughs

Catherine Butterfield: Maggy Burroughs

Marianna Harris, Christopher Hutchison, Barbara Keegan, Richard Tanner, Freyda Thomas, John Towey Others

By Catherine Butterfield. Directed by Pamela Berlin. Sets by James Noone. Lighting by Liz Stillwell. Costumes by Marianna Elliott. Sound by John Kilgore.

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