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'Habeas': A Good Mix of Talent

May 13, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since each performance of Alan Bennett's "Habeas Corpus" at the Matrix Theatre features a different mix of actors drawn from the production's dual casts, there's no way to know in advance which of the alternates might appear in any given role.

Not to worry, though. Any loss in predictability is more than offset by the opportunity to see first-rate performers who couldn't commit to stage work in a small house without the schedule flexibility that allows them to pursue other projects during the run.

The implicit concession to the reality of live theater's back-seat status to film and television may rankle stage purists, but the benefits of Matrix producer Joe Stern's double-casting strategy were obvious in the impressive range of talent arrayed for the two performances reviewed last weekend.

Within the tight constraints of Bennett's energetic farce (which combines the sophisticated wit of "The Importance of Being Earnest" with the raunchy burlesque of "The Benny Hill Show"), the differences between casts are primarily in interpretive spin rather than quality of performance.

The widest variations are in Bennett's bastions of upper-middle-class hypocrisy, the philandering Dr. Wicksteed and his long-suffering wife, Muriel. As the not-so-good doctor who "couldn't heal a shoe," Charles Hallahan flounders hopelessly in his own romantic delusions, while Robert Foxworth is more the self-aware realist (though just as hilariously enslaved to his raging hormones).

Shirley Knight plays Muriel as a clueless, bewildered matron--the funniest moment in the production is her round-eyed astonishment (and delight) when she's mistakenly "adjusted" by a salesman (Andrew Robinson or Andrew Bloch) who thinks she's wearing his bust-enlargement product; in contrast, Jennifer Bassey's Muriel is sharper and feistier, but less endearingly befuddled.

Contributing to the inevitable complications are their hypochondriac son (equally nerdy JD Cullum and Gregory Cooke) and the seductive gold digger (outrageous Kaitlin Hopkins or enigmatic Anna Gunn) who snares him; spinster Aunt Constance (Nancy Lenehan in both reviewed performances) and the lecherous priest (effete Alastair Duncan or aggressive Cotter Smith) who urges her to join him in "the forefront of Anglican sexuality"; rival doctor Sir Percy Shorter (wiry Hamilton Camp or aloof Charles Berendt); and the meddlesome commentator-maid (pushy, mischievous Paddi Edwards or twinkly, demented Marian Mercer).

Qualitative differences in performance are minimal, though Nan Martin is a more imperious presence than Audra Lindley as the Lady Bracknell-ish aristocratic snob, and Berendt brings more comic lunacy to his suicidal patient than does Brian Mallon.

Credit director Kristoffer Tabori for the continuity his precision staging brings to the various casts, and for frenetic pacing appropriate to Bennett's verbal acrobatics. He hasn't solved the problematic final 15 minutes, however, in which the play seems perpetually stuck on the verge of ending.

Successful production embellishments include colorful Hockneyesque painted backdrops (by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio) in place of the scripted bare stage, and a score by Ross Levinson setting Bennett's occasional spoken poems to music.

Both "Habeas Corpus" and the preceding Matrix production of "The Tavern" have been smart choices--the kind of plot-driven comedies that can easily incorporate the performance variations inherent in the "plug-and-play" casting concept. Character-based dramas like "King Lear" or "Death of a Salesman," however, might pose a greater challenge. We'll just have to wait and see.

* "Habeas Corpus," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Ends June 26. $18. (213) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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