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THEATER REVIEW : 'Tender' '50s Time Capsule Gets Trapped in Today

March 08, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Among the many pleasures of Jack O'Brien's hip and zippy revival of "Damn Yankees," now on Broadway after moving from San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, is how it embraces the show's 1950s sensibility while exploiting its retro funkiness.

O'Brien brought "Yankees" back with the awareness that the '50s looks more cartoonish every year. But what to do with a revival of Max Shulman's and Robert Paul Smith's 1954 "The Tender Trap"?

Much better known for the greatly altered movie version with Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds (and with that inimitable title song), it's a pure '50s view of the battle of the sexes, with opposites combatting and attracting.

It's the kind of play where the women are always "girls," where one girl named Sylvia who plays classical violin explains that New York is the only place to go for the career-minded, where a girl named Julie explains that a girl's only real calling is raising a family. It's the kind of play where an unalterable bachelor named Charlie is going to get trapped by a girl like Julie.

Even if "The Tender Trap" is revivable, it can't be updated to the '90s--at least not the way director Wally Silvers has done it at Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse.

"Trap" is firmly stuck in its era: "the Atomic Age," as Julie terms it. But Silvers seems to want to run away from it all while, oddly, forgetting to cut the anachronisms.

In other words, this show is throttled in a weird time warp of its own making. We see people dressed in contemporary garb and living in a fairly contemporary New York apartment (John Brammer's set, though, is too unattractive for a bachelor pad), yet they're also talking about finding a cure for the common cold or playing with Leonard Bernstein or dating a ton of "girls" at once. It doesn't fly, and, because of AIDS alone, "Trap" can't be nudged, pushed or cajoled into today.

*

Shulman's and Smith's belabored action and dialogue certainly would make this a tough sit even if it were taken back to its rightful place in the Eisenhower Era.

The play is pretty ludicrous, down to a medical-lab technician (Spencer Fox's badly judged Earl) who behaves like Bugsy Siegel's right-hand man. The comedy requires--but never delivers--the kind of Noel Coward-ly repartee that lets you glide over plot stupidities, and seldom has a happy end felt more unearned.

Meanwhile, Silvers' cast is stuck in this time-warp effect, a kind of badly comedic "Twilight Zone."

Eddie Zeman's Charlie looks and sounds studly enough, but like nearly everyone else, his comic timing is always a few ticks off. As Charlie's buddy Joe, Shawn Smyth not only doesn't look like the married man he's supposed to look like, he comes off as yuppie meat-market material.

It's not clear what Rachel Kelley intends as Julie, but her flat, grating voice alone would be enough for Charlie to immediately show her the door.

The comedy's most irritating problem is that Charlie shouldn't be trapped by Julie, but by smart, grown-up Sylvia, and Judy Dudek Neal's likably straightforward Sylvia only drives that point home.

Neal is the only cast member who makes the anachronisms listenable, although Ian Downs' funny cameo as a drunken trombonist has fun with retro style.

"The Tender Trap" may even be beyond retro, but it's still the only way to view it. The sexual wars have changed too much to take this as anything but a curio. The real curiosity is why Silvers' production seems so oblivious to the obvious.

* "The Tender Trap," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 27. $10. (714) 650-5269. 2 hours, 30 minutes. Eddie Zeman: Charlie Reader

Whitney Brooke Wright: Poppy Matson

Shawn Smyth: Joe McCall

Monica Suter: Jessica Collins

Judy Dudek Neal: Sylvia Crewes

Rachel Kelley: Julie Gillis

Spencer Fox: Earl Lindquist

Ian Downs: Sol Schwartz

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse production of Max Shulman's and Robert Paul Smith's comedy. Directed by Wally Silvers. Lights: Leslie Barry. Set: John Brammer.

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