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Maturing Gracefully : In 'Women of Manhattan,' Shanley wrote dialogue that affectionately captures the essence of his protagonists.

March 04, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes about theater regularly for The Times.

BURBANK — John Patrick Shanley sidestepped his well-trodden path when he wrote "Women of Manhattan." Shanley aficionados shouldn't look here for the violence of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" or the deeply toned ethnicity of his plays and films about the Italian-American experience in New York. These women belong in Wendy Wasserstein country in Beth Henleyland.

What audiences may be pleasantly surprised to find in this effervescent production at the Little Victory is that Shanley can do what many other male playwrights can't, and that is write dialogue for women accurately and affectionately.

Shanley's three protagonists, successful college friends who are all replanted Manhattanites, bond and, refreshingly, believe in themselves as individuals, though never so fiercely as their male counterparts, nor so shallowly.

Their problems are distinctive. Rhonda has just been deserted by a guy named Jerry, but keeps his red sneakers in her living room, just in case. Billie is caught in an empty marriage and has affairs to fulfill herself. Judy can't seem to pick a guy who isn't gay, and her romantic desperation keeps bouncing off the closet. She is panicky over her frustration.

Does Shanley sound misogynistic at this point? Don't believe it. He feels empathy for his women and puts much of the blame on the men in their lives. Jerry was an unfeeling jerk. Billie's husband, Bob, is as emotionless and self-involved as an oyster.

Director Katherine Huston allows Shanley's humor to bubble around his insights into the female id while not ignoring the birthing pains of the women's maturity. And she makes it plain that, at the final curtain, they are very different from when we first meet them.

The men in their lives face problems just as explicit. If Billie's barbecue scene with her husband shows a couple as empty and uncommunicative as they can be, it's an honest look at why Billie strays. If the conversation in the restaurant scene in which Judy meets her blind date, one of Billie's unregenerate macho tricks, is disorganized and quirky, it's an insight into what may trigger Judy's emotional recovery.

The performances also bubble. Of course David Salper's Bob is as interesting as a plate of glass, and Anthony Winters' blind date Duke is annoying as an unreachable itch. But that's the point of their being there, and they each have enough charm to make it logical that the women find them attractive.

But it's the women's show. Lisa Lund's Rhonda is a loving portrait of a woman who will be wise after life has worn her down a bit, and Diana Gunther's Billie grows from an insecure bimbo-like stereotype into a wife who finds her husband's uncharacteristic and momentary abuse a key to opening gates that have kept them apart.

Corny Koehl's Judy is at the center of Shanley's triptych, and Koehl makes her most difficult and opaque moments work like a charm. She is so honestly vulnerable she makes you want to hug her. It's a multihued performance that makes every facet of Shanley's writing shine.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Women of Manhattan."

Location: Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 27.

Price: $15.

Call: (213) 466-1767.

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