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THEATER REVIEW : Toned-Down Rendering of 'Good Times Are Killing Me'

June 23, 1995|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lynda Barry's 1988 novella "The Good Times Are Killing Me" examines a racially mixed neighborhood in the mid-'60s through the not-yet-jaundiced eyes and ears of pre-adolescent Edna Arkins.

Barry's dramatization of her book, somewhat toned down but still lively and moving, is at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre. Marla Gam-Hudson's staging captures most of the piece's pop humor and poignancy.

It's almost a musical. Though no one interrupts normal conversation to break into original song, real pop songs of the period get a workout on the soundtrack. In Edna's first lines, she expresses the same sentiment that Noel Coward did when he wrote about the potency of cheap music. Choreographer Wade Collings also makes sure that we understand the potency of cheap street-corner dance.

As the title indicates, however, Barry's work is not rose-colored nostalgia. By the end of the first act, a character is dead in a tragic accident and Edna's father has walked out on his brood.

By the end of the play, Edna's little arena has become a microcosm of the stubborn strength of racial barriers in urban America. Although those barriers fall just long enough to allow white Edna to become best friends with her black neighbor Bonna, the walls go up again as the girls enter seventh grade, notwithstanding a tacked-on little coda that can only be interpreted as a dream sequence.

Despite a wealth of amusing observations early on, the show is ultimately sobering--though not nearly as dark as the book, in which the invective is harsher and a couple of the minor characters meet truly depressing fates.

The story has a hang-loose, episodic structure. Barry's work relies more on telling little details than on a carefully plotted sense of structure. Too much structure might seem manipulative in this setting. Still, Gam-Hudson makes sure that the narrative never feels unfocused.

Some of the actors are older than the characters they're playing, including high school students Sarah van der Pol as Edna and Aiysha Sinclair as Bonna. Bonna is such a relatively tough kid that we don't notice the age difference as much with the spirited Sinclair as we do with Van der Pol. Nonetheless, Van der Pol puts an unsophisticated spin on Edna's words that convincingly brings her back down the age scale most of the time.

Anneliese van der Pol is perfect as Edna's kid sister (and in fact is the kid sister of Sarah van der Pol). David Walker is delightful as Bonna's kid brother.

Among the adults, Amy Von Freymann and Robyn Hastings register strongly as harried working-class moms, and Kathryn Hasty is very funny in the more caricatured role of Edna's Aunt Margaret. Speaking of caricatures, Tasha Witkin and Patricia DeLaunay sketch a vivid cartoon as two obnoxious teen-agers.

* "The Good Times Are Killing Me," Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; this Sunday and July 16, 2 p.m. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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