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THEATER REVIEW : Superficial 'Help!' Takes Aim at Parents and Caretakers

October 27, 1995|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the women in Michael Weller's "Help!" refers to another character as "a walking cartoon." It's a comment that could be applied to virtually everyone on stage at the Coast Playhouse. Unlike other Weller works I've seen, this one trades only in caricatures.

Weller's primary target appears to be self-absorbed couples who insist on having babies, only to thrust their offspring into the hands of foreign-born caretakers--complete strangers, in fact.

In the course of taking swipes at the young parents, however, Weller also bludgeons the caretakers themselves with a series of stereotypes that many might find offensive. But to take serious offense at this play is to take it too seriously. The main problem with "Help!" isn't its insensitivity as much as its relentless superficiality.

As the play begins, Manhattan co-op residents Nicole (Alley Mills) and Hollis (Tim Ryan) are about to become the parents of twins. Nicole is quitting her high-stakes editing job to pursue the greater challenge of motherhood. The family will manage to scrape by on the basis of Hollis' income as a bankruptcy attorney.

Scene two: domestic hell. Taking care of the twins is too great a challenge. Nicole needs help!, to use the Spanish punctuation. After a cliched scene in which we quickly glimpse some of the horrible candidates for the job, in walks Unitia (Diana Marie Belbot), from somewhere in Latin America--she's vague about where. She has no green card. But she does have advanced skills in "tropical juju."

Not only can she quiet the crying twins with a few quick finger tricks, but she cooks exotic meals and fills the entire household with a sense of sunny, sensual vitality. She makes both Nicole and Hollis proud to return to traditional gender roles--Nicole delays returning to work. With Unitia's advice, the couple's sex life becomes so torrid that Nicole is soon pregnant again. At first Nicole plans to abort the pregnancy. But then Unitia threatens to rain down curses.

Offstage during intermission, this little crisis is resolved, as Nicole completely capitulates to Unitia. But though we don't see this seemingly crucial bit of exposition, Weller compensates by letting his plot run wild.

The second act's series of twists and turns might be credible if it were a dream sequence representing the couple's repressed fears--and we then returned to a semblance of reality. But there is no semblance of reality in the rest of the play.

Some playwrights might be able to pull off this kind of artifice, but Weller's attempt to do so is labored and long. There is a sizable gap between the number of gags and the number of laughs.

David Schweizer's staging makes no attempt to soften the script's over-the-top quality. At first Ryan's Hollis is amusingly uptight, then he becomes positively Kowalski-like. Mills, at least, gets to display a bit more ambivalence. While donning naughty lingerie, she forgets to take off the little string of pearls around her neck--one of the funniest sight gags of the evening.

John Gegenhuber, as Hollis' mess of a friend, is the least restrained of the actors; Mimi Lieber fares somewhat better as Nicole's friend. Belbot wallows in shrewd Unitia's shtick; given the script, it's hard to imagine an alternative approach.

* "Help!" Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $25. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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