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THEATER REVIEW : Surprisingly Silky Purse Made From 'Donkey's Years'

November 01, 1995|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOLANA BEACH — Sometimes it's not that you can't go home again, it's that you shouldn't. Take Michael Frayn's "Donkey's Years." Please.

This 1976 comedy about English upper-crust twits going to their college class' 20th reunion gets a stylish turnout at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Despite a clever cast, whirling expertly from one physical joke to another under director Christina Courtenay's deft direction, the center of this farce is hollow.

Reunion tales--a genre unto itself--can open up doors to examinations of faded dreams or could've-been, would've-been fantasies amid the usual self-deprecating humor.

The closest we come to existential Angst here is alumnus Snell (Matthew Reidy), who deeply regrets not having lived on campus so he could have indulged in wild campus pranks like sneaking women into the all-male rooms and toilet-papering the buildings.

Instead of insights, we get the inevitable alumni yuks, chiefly at the expense of the one woman in the play, Lady Driver (Christine Jeston).

Driver, now married to the conspicuously absent master of the college, was quite promiscuous as a college student. She is searching now for one special former heartthrob, but she's nearsighted, so she ends up making her romantic confession in the wrong guy's room. Comical complications ensue. And multiply, as is their wont in farces such as this.

Jeston is so good as Lady Driver--nervous, edgy, so Britishly desperate to seem composed when she is writhing with embarrassment inside--that you sometimes don't care about the inanities she has to play. She is the motor that keeps these creaky wheels rolling.

And she does get fine support from a uniformly fine cast, particularly Reidy's manic Snell, Harry Preston as the "seen-it-all" head porter and Jim Johnston as the politician who surprises himself by finding that he has a conscience. (Talk about stretching the limits of believability!)

Actually, the play has its irresistible moments--Frayn, a farce pro, squeezes in a "hide the woman behind the door in a room of men" scene that makes you chuckle even while you know you're being manipulated. And the show's details all work nicely.

North Coast's set designer Marty Burnett turns in yet another fine job, creating the warm stone and ivy that suggest this "lesser college" at one of the "older universities." Michael Zinman's lighting navigates the changes in mood and time. John-Bryan Davis' elegant, formal costumes suggest gradations in class with subtle skill.

But this long show--three acts that clock in at nearly 2 1/2 hours--drags overall. Worse, there are patches of dialogue in which the men are crowing about female conquests in a way that makes 1995 sensibilities cringe.

The term "Donkey's Years" is a British expression meaning "not for a very long time." This particular Frayn play hasn't been done in donkey's years. And for good reason. It hasn't aged well.

* "Donkey's Years," North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $14 to $16. (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours and 24 minutes.

Harry Preston Mr. S. Birkett

Jim Johnston C.D.P.B. Headingly, MA, MP

Dave Rethoret D.J. Buckle, MB, FRCS

Matthew Reidy K. Snell, MA

Douglas Reger A.V. Quine, BA

Daniel Mann The Rev. R.D. Sainsbury, MA

Robert F. Stark N.O.P. Tate, MA

John Steed W.R. Taylor, MA, PhD

Christine Jeston Lady Driver

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of a play by Michael Frayn, directed by Christina Courtenay. Sets: Marty Burnett. Costumes: John-Bryan Davis. Lights: Michael Zinman. Sound: Jim Johnston. Stage manager: Susan Clausen.

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