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Theater : West's 'Puddin' Suffers From Marriage of Cliches

March 13, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — The wedding takes place in the Garden of Eden, so at first glance things look pretty leafy for the couple, even if they are of a certain age.

But, of course, there is a serpent lurking (represented here by a slithering mime in a body suit). The couple's first problem: Pete feels he's getting the better deal and Puddin doesn't disagree.

If the names sound cute and the setting familiar, that's because this is a fable told in play form. "Puddin 'N Pete: Fable of a Marriage," was first seen at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1993.

After extensive rewriting by playwright Cheryl L. West, this primer on marriage is now at the Old Globe's intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage, where the audience is almost part of the household of Pete (Kevin E. Jones), a sweet-natured janitor who is deeply in love with the saucy, bossy Puddin (Elizabeth Omilami), a secretary who struggles not to look down on her husband.

A Greek chorus, two men and two women, comment on the journey of Puddin and Pete. They also join in the action to become the many people in the world who wish them well and cause them problems.

The serpent (Robert Barry Fleming) reflects the characters' states of mind in balletic movement, and he guides us through the tale, which is divided into chapters with projected titles such as "Sex," "Betrayal" and "Yours, Mine, Ours, and Mostly Mine."

*

As a treatise on marriage, "Puddin 'N Pete" covers all of the bases but doesn't score many runs. Instead of the archetypal quality one finds in the best fables, the couple's problems too often seem generic.

Pete is threatened when Puddin confides intimate details to her girlfriends. She gets mad when he falls asleep at a dinner party (even though her friends are horrible). Usually, the more specific the problem, the funnier. She likes to listen to opera in bed. He protests: "I can't concentrate with white people screaming round me."

The chorus pipes in, often with meaningless cliches. The women opine that marriage is legalized prostitution and that, since women don't care about winning, they should be running the world (they high-five each other for that bon mot). The men's rejoinders are equally stale.

Director Gilbert McCauley has the chorus deliver commentary from all sides of the theater-in-the-round. You never know where they'll pop up, but you can be pretty certain the chorus will speak brightly, as if they themselves are invigorated by some very old warhorses.

Puddin and Pete have specific baggage, represented by the trunks they keep onstage. Pete unpacks a large and cherished hat collection--indicating he is insecure and in need of alternate identities. Puddin unpacks frames with no pictures. The pictures are kept in a locked trunk, indicating she does not want to share her past. Her secret turns out to be a currently standard one on TV movies and in best sellers, as predictable now as a closeted homosexual in a Tennessee Williams play.

When things get rocky, Greg Lucas' charming set reminds us of where all true marriages originate--in the Garden of Eden, which looks here like it was drawn on a sidewalk by an imaginative child with green, blue and purple chalk.

Suddenly, perhaps because it has to be in a marriage primer, the couple wants to have a baby. Pete is in his trunk, wistfully tossing a football and twirling the propeller atop his childhood beanie-copter. If these trunks are the characters' unconscious, they were gotten at the standard-issue unconscious store.

*

In "Jar the Floor" (produced at the Old Globe and most recently at South Coast Rep), West broke through the cliches to illuminate the common problems of mother-daughter relationships. Although she does not do the same for marriage, "Puddin 'N Pete" is not without its touching, recognizable moments.

As Puddin, a woman who has trouble saying "I'm sorry," Omilami reveals a complex tug-of-war between a woman's pride and the uneasy knowledge that she has been ungenerous. As Pete, Jones is more likable but has fewer shades to play.

Of the ensemble, Jonathan Earl Peck stands out, always funny in his transformations from a snooty copywriter to a wacky friend to Pete's craggy older brother, dispensing wisdom he feels sure should have made him a preacher.

But the lessons in "Puddin 'N Pete" always border on the platitudinous. You have to claim where you've been to know where you're going. In marriage, there's always a snake, and the couple must help one another to see it. In dispensing homey wisdom, "Puddin 'N Pete" is a lesser fable--it is wise without being smart.

* "Puddin 'N Pete: Fable of a Marriage," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends April 23. $20-$36. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Elizabeth Omilami: Puddin

Kevin E. Jones: Pete

Robert Barry: Fleming Serpent

Cara Rene: White Woman

Lisa Louise Langford: Black Woman

Jonathan Earl Peck: Black Man

Mark Hutter: White Man

An Old Globe Theatre production. By Cheryl L. West. Directed by Gilbert McCauley. Sets by Greg Lucas. Costumes by Yslan Hicks. Lights by Michael Gilliam. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Incidental choreography by Robert Barry Fleming. Stage manager Raul Moncada.

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