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Theater Reviews : '4 Faces': Showcase for Actor's Talent as Writer : Peter Mark Richman brings an honesty to the characters in his one-man show at the Waltmar Theatre. He proves his artistry as a performer--and reveals what's on his mind.

March 01, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Peter Mark Richman's solo performance, "4 Faces," at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, would seem to be about an actor displaying his range. In Los Angeles, the center of the film industry, this is known as showcasing. And for a lot of people, showcasing isn't theater.

Still, one could understand if Richman wanted to make his own declaration of independence from the hundreds (thousands?) of tough, tight-lipped character roles he's handled over the years. His is one of the know-the-face-don't-know-the-name identities in Hollywood.

But underneath the tough guy is an actor who can write material that proves his artistry and has something to say.

To be sure, "4 Faces" is not very far from showcasing. When you give yourself a chance to play (in order) a morally conflicted preacher, a grieving Italian-American father, a former Nazi SS officer and a retired Jewish vocal teacher, you're probably doing something more like a gallery of types and less like a play. It tempts the audience's worst instinct, which is to treat the actor like a performing animal in an amusement park: What trick can he do this time? Even worse, the actor is tempted to encourage that instinct.

One obvious factor, though, mitigates against that here. Were Richman doing "4 Faces" in Hollywood, it would look suspicious. But you can't be accused of currying attention and favor in a town as far from Hollywood as Orange. In the Waltmar, under the direction of his wife, Helen Richman, it feels as honest as it looks terrific.

*

It's under the surface, though, where the play comes through. Writer Richman has carefully linked all four pieces so that none can be seen independent of the others, and each depends on the others for full effect. The string tying the pieces together is the human quest to understand God, and through it, draw some kind of meaning. Significantly, Richman is more interested in questions than answers.

First, we meet Pastor Harlan Gregory, berating his Sunday congregation for "the comfortable arrogance of spiritual pride." He ridicules, lectures and cajoles his flock to adopt a more humble stance toward God, but this is only a pretext for what's really on his mind. "Certain women," he suddenly announces, have been spreading false rumors about him.

Is this a version of Jimmy Swaggart, or of a truly religious man with real grievances? Richman ends the piece with intriguing inconclusiveness, which can't be said for the melodramatic second piece about a father named Carlo, whose grief isn't at all in doubt.

*

Of the four portraits, this is both the most fully detailed and the least interesting--the cliched image of the hand-wringing father wondering where it all went wrong with his son who OD'd. Our attention should be on the tragedy; instead, it's on Richman's convincing Italian-American behavior.

The third "face" would seem to flirt with real disaster. Richman's Gerhardt might have been one of those unrepentant, on-the-loose Nazis out of "Marathon Man." But by revealing some details at the beginning and end of the piece, Richman creates a work of fine dramatic craft.

Gerhardt implies that his belief in God, and it seems, goodness, died with his mother, who died just before Hitler's rise. Both in performance and dialogue, Richman suggests a man who has talked himself into thinking that he was swept up in the tide of Nazi fervor--even though he was at the center of plans that deported millions of Jews to death camps. A hint of diabolical pleasure, though, comes through, both in his past crimes and in his continued escape from the law.

*

This is powerful enough. But then Richman presents the final portrait--an elderly Jewish man named Daniel, waiting for a bus, telling a young man how he survived the death camps by performing for Nazi officers. Instead of reverting to the play's earlier melodrama, Richman uses gentle comedy as a counterpoint, and even implies in the writing that Daniel and Gerhardt met in the wings of the Salzburg Opera.

*

At this point in his life, Daniel's belief in God is shaken, though not shattered. In his son Lucas Richman's (taped) symphonic supporting music, there's this same mix of devotion and modern complexity. Ron Coffman's simple but specific lighting effects and set designer Craig Brown's four monolithic flats with painted face silhouettes (congregants?) also suggest this religious ambivalence.

What might have appeared strictly an excuse for an actor to show us his stuff becomes, instead, a work that shows us what is on his mind.

* "4 Faces," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. (ends Sunday). $10-$15. (714) 997-6812. Running time: 2 hours.

A Chapman University production of the play by Peter Mark Richman. Directed by Helen Richman. Set: Craig Brown. Lights: Ron Coffman. Music: Lucas Richman.

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