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Theater Reviews : 'C.E.O.' Serves Fast Talk, Farce : Cal Rep's adaptation takes an order for fun and comes up with corporate high jinks and a side of political commentary.

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

LONG BEACH — Somewhere, somehow, Cal Rep artistic director Howard Burman landed upon the obscure Ferenc Molnar farce, "The President," saw something in it worth doing and adapted it to our time.

What sounds like an eccentric dramaturgical choice on paper turns out to be exhausting fun at the Cal Rep Theatre, where, in Burman's "C.E.O.," the words are flying and the doors are swinging faster than you can say "Big Mac."

At the McDonald's Paris-based international division, chief honcho C.R. Doyle (Ronald Allan-Lindblom) is the definitive control freak, a walking Filofax of appointments, names, dates and marketing strategies. His eye is on the big post of CEO at company central in San Diego. Above all, Doyle is the kind of man who turns crisis into opportunity.

Crisis, thy name is farce. In the light vein of so much of Molnar's now-forgotten comedy, Doyle's dilemma arrives in the sweet form of Jenny, the CEO's daughter (Doina Roman-Osborn), whom Doyle has been chaperoning during the summer. Soon after Doyle is told that the CEO and his wife are unexpectedly arriving in less than two hours, Jenny announces that she's married Raul (Armando Jose Duran), a Cuban Communist who, for unexplained reasons, is in exile in Paris driving taxis.

Man of action that he is, Doyle realizes he can't undo the marriage, so he sets about turning Raul into the model McDonald's exec, in the hope that the boss will notice and bump Doyle upstairs. From revolutionary to three-piece-suited yuppie, Castroite to burger capitalist, Raul's transformation plays into every mockery raised by the Cold War and the joint absurdities of both banana socialism and fast-food imperialism.

What could be a two-act comedy--the first being Raul's fight against Doyle's plan, the second the resolution--is here a swift 75-minute one-act played out in real time. Director Ashley Carr has probably had easier assignments: No fewer than 22 characters zoom in and out of Doyle's office at accelerating frenzy, inviting one staging catastrophe after another.

Impressively, everyone keeps to cue and almost never trips. Between Doyle's battalion of secretaries (most memorably Gena Acosta's frazzled Ms. Norman), and a phalanx of barbers, tailors and underlings, "C.E.O." becomes a football-like dance of teams coming in and off the playing field.

Keep your eyes glued on all the comings and goings, though, and the rat-a-tat-tat lingo, dominated by Allan-Lindblom, will whiz past your ears.

At times, Allan-Lindblom sounds nearly winded by the speed of this talk. It never achieves the musicality of Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" or the aggressive punch of James Cagney in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" (which this most resembles), but "C.E.O." doesn't sound quite like any other show. The sheer relentlessness of pace and speech is a real act of nerve. *

It's enough to dazzle you during the playing, but not enough to stop you from questioning it afterward. Raul's resistance to the make-over, for instance, is unbelievably brief. Doyle's fate is far too predictable. The play's single-track plot flirts with monotony and reminds why great farce is more than one story.

"C.E.O." is thin goods played and staged as if it was much more. Besides Allan-Lindblom's aplomb with pacing, he really looks and sounds like a company man. Roman-Osborn provides the charm that allures the funny Dura'n, without which there's no comedy. In the massive supporting cast, Acosta, Penelope Lindblom as a haughty countess and Jeff Paul as a funny, frazzled doctor add special comic accents in a dizzying parade of comic types.

Carr's staging would probably be impossible without Lisa Hashimoto's sleek, wood-paneled, multi-doored set and would look less dazzling without Linda Davisson's ambitious costuming, which spans the social spectrum. Indeed, there's almost more to the look of "C.E.O." than to the text. Or at least, to the text that our ears can take in.

* "C.E.O.," Cal Rep Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive. Today, 6 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. $15. (310) 985-7000. Ends Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ronald Allan-Lindblom: C.R. Doyle

Doina Roman-Osborn: Jenny

Armando Jose Duran: Raul

Gena Acosta: Ms. Norman

Susannah MacAdams: Preston

Jeff Paul: Dr. Jaloux

Penelope Lindblom: Countess San Marino-Schattenburg

Ashley Carr: Big Mac

A Cal Rep production by Howard Burman adapted from Ferenc Molnar's farce "The President." Directed by Ashley Carr. Set: Lisa Hashimoto. Costumes: Linda Davisson. Lights: Sharon L. Alexander. Sound: Mark Abel.

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