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THEATER BEAT

'Wage Slaves' Loses Sight of Satire

August 04, 1995|PHILIP BRANDES

Experiencing "Wage Slaves" at Metropole Theatre Works is somewhat analogous to watching a National Geographic special with the sound off, or reading one of Paul Bowles' stories about impenetrable culture clash--we recognize we're dealing with human beings, but the missing common assumptions make understanding behavior impossible.

Unfortunately, that reaction isn't the intended one. This new comedy by Michael Lerew and James Beau Smith depicts not some remote society but rather a subculture quite close to home--the underpaid, exploited employees at a department store. Yet they still come across as unfathomable aliens.

Somehow this sprawling, unfocused mess loses sight of the fundamental rule that satire, no matter how broad, needs some basis in reality. These are not exaggerated caricatures, they're whole-cloth kooks: The new boss (Melissa Egan) is an East German dominatrix in full regalia; the incessantly babbling, limb-flailing janitor (John Wickersham) turns out to be a major company stockholder; and everyone in between is a certifiable crackpot, goof-off or larcenous egotist. It's the kind of eccentricity that can work when disrupting a backdrop of normality, but proves amateurish and self-indulgent when it comprises the entire context.

Todd Eckert and Bonnie Lucas find convincing cores as a pair of co-workers who discover they've gotten married during an inebriated Las Vegas adventure, and LeAnn Hamilton does a promising bit of comic supporting characterization, but they're nearly buried amid the compound improbabilities in six loosely linked subplots. There's a token nod to farcical convention in the dual doors for loud, frenzied entrances and exits, and in the revelation of a disguised identity in the climax, for which the entire 12-member ensemble unbelievably sits down.

Director Barry J. Williams serves as little more than traffic cop where restraint, pruning and shaping were badly needed for this frat house skit run amok.

* "Wage Slaves," Metropole Theatre Works, 1277 N. Wilton Place, Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Runs indefinitely. $10. (213) 883-9692. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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