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Getting Hit Over the Head : James Kennedy's wild 'Slow Death' is as bombastic for the audience as it is brutal to the characters.

March 11, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times. and

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — One thing about the San Fernando Valley's newest resident artistic director, playwright James Kennedy: His jackhammer theatrical style drives critics crazy.

Kennedy, who recently took over the former Gnu Theater and transformed it into the Odessa Theatre, has been outraging theater reviewers for 20 years with overripe, bombastic plays. Audiences don't seem to mind as much as his dismayed critics, give or take a few who have lauded his unpredictability. One thing is for sure: Nobody ever dismisses Kennedy.

These ruminations were prompted by Kennedy's raw, bus-prisoner drama, "Slow Death," which is set in the desert. It's being staged simultaneously with "The Session," Kennedy's diametrically different play about a celebrity photographer shooting beautiful women.

(Kennedy and co-artistic director Reese Howard have outfitted the Odessa with refinished 70-year-old chairs that are arguably the most comfortable seats in Greater L.A. small theater.)

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 18, 1994 Valley Edition Valley Life Page 9 Zones Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--An actor was misidentified in a review of "Slow Death" in the March 11 edition of Valley Life! Ken Harris plays the part of the deputy sheriff in the Odessa Theatre production of the James Kennedy play.

As an old Kennedy-watcher (from his earliest play, "Winners Circle"--in which critics in the front row were inadvertently sprayed with gobs of mud standing in for fecal matter--to the Howard Hughes-themed "Dogfight" to the Van Gogh-themed "Mad Vincent"), I am happy to report that this enfant terrible is still marching to the same muse, playing by his own rules and, once again, driving patrons to the edge of their patience.

In the literary parlance of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, dramatist Kennedy is a putter-inner, not a taker-outer. Subtlety is a foreign substance. He's never met an emotion he doesn't like and won't dramatize, which is both the bane and surprise of "Slow Death."

The title describes the ordeal of four prisoners chained together inside a prison bus manned by a deputy sheriff from hell (the demented Mark Harris). Unaccountably steering his charges into the desert and onto a remote bombing range, the guard turns out to be a mad avenging angel who strips to his shorts, smears his body with blood and dances, in genuinely nutty, comic scenes, to show tunes.

Most of the time the deputy verbally and physically torments the prisoners, who are a varied lot, even as each predictably undergoes a histrionic epiphany under the boiling sun.

Rattling their chains, still in their civvies, the prisoners are emissaries of life's big con reduced to animalism. The acting is generally hyper with the exception of Perry Moore's silken black dude, who, as the play's most mysterious character, is its most interesting. In contrast are J. Bartell's snarly killer, Philip Sokoloff's amusing, hyperventilating latent pedophile and the quartet's nominal guy next door (Brad Henson and his all-American mug), who invokes encounters with women from his past (Elise Allen and Ginger Marin).

Underneath its shrillness (the crazed deputy almost suffocates the play), the production is a metaphor for a spiritual wasteland, albeit laid on with a trowel.

Such a theme is symbolized by the prisoners in chains, a brain-fevered desert rat (James Andrew Oster) who materializes as if from a rock, railing against society's destruction of nature, and finally, the empty, burnished landscape (rendered by lighting designer Gregory Santana's hot colors and director/set designer Reese Howard's cut-away bus frame, inside of which, facing the house all in a row, sit the surly prisoners.

Kennedy abhors minimalism, discretion, tight focus and a lean, clean style and opts, characteristically, for the big moment, the operatic passion and visceral, messy stage business. In contrast, he calls "The Session" a party.

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