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THEATER REVIEW

Tale of Mailman Lacks Stamp of Credibility

February 07, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Joshua (David Allen Jones) doesn't have a lot of friends. He is a Jewish mailman and telegram deliverer in a Nebraska town called, coincidentally, Deliverance. It is 1943. The townspeople are innately suspicious of a Jewish guy who uses big words they don't understand, like "apropos."

But, more offensively, Joshua delivers the telegrams that tell of the deaths of their boys overseas. The townspeople not only hate Joshua for that but hold him responsible as well.

This is the endlessly repeated and not deeply credible premise of David Paterson's new play, "Pieces of the Sky," at the Grove Theater Center's Gem Theater in Garden Grove. Run by two young producers, Kevin Cochran and Charles Johanson, the Grove must be commended for seeking out new playwrights. But finding good new plays is not easy. "Pieces of the Sky" is evidence of that.

This play shows its stitch marks from the first scene--a woman and two men march around a diner banging pots and singing about Hitler losing his manhood as a way of celebrating a Nazi defeat in Tunis. This shows the woman to be high-spirited and irreverent, but it just doesn't ring true.

Paterson doesn't develop themes but brings them up again and again. Joshua is repeatedly snubbed and insulted in a multitude of ways and he responds with dignity, tame sarcasm and self-deprecating humor over and over.

Things do happen in the play. Joshua pursues a tentative friendship with Sarah (Patricia Boyette), the wise-cracking owner of the cozy-but-poor little diner. He delivers a telegram to her and to her violent ex-husband, interrupting what looks like the start of a brutal beating. A bad person is conveniently killed in a car accident. Joshua offers Sarah the missing piece to a puzzle both in the first and last scenes. But these events in no way build. They merely accumulate.

Cochran directs the play as if he doesn't see its faults. Consequently, his main actors seem invested in their thin characters.

Sarah has some sprightly lines, delivered by Boyette with a plucky, lopsided grin that grows a little too familiar over the course of the evening. "War makes people cranky," she tells Joshua when he complains of his treatment by the town, one of the few lines in which the cause of Joshua's treatment is not belabored.

Jones looks like a nice version of Dennis Hopper. His persistent, quiet dignity is appealing. But, as written, Joshua is not so much articulate as verbose ("I'm glad I could assist you in alleviating the situation") so that the townspeople's dislike of him appears almost justified. And his dropping of Yiddish words sounds self-conscious and "show-offy" rather than natural.

The play's minor characters are one-note creations. Mark Wilson is the stock violent, racist ex-husband, unsurprising at all times. Cliff Rolfe plays Henry, who's a little slow, continually calling gin when he's playing poker. This character is not used to any effect.

As the teenage boy whose leg injury keeps him on the home front, Walter A. Lutz Jr. gives his character a sweet optimism, a nice tonic to the predictable intractability of the men (only women and young people can escape it, it seems).

Paterson is a young playwright, not yet 30. Glimmers of a sensibility can be seen in "Pieces of the Sky." In examining the problematic relationship of Joshua and Sarah, he's obviously striving to create interesting territory.

But in the end, when the two friends make up and share a little chuckle over the past--for instance, over the day when Sarah hurled a crude ethnic epithet at Joshua--one experiences that sinking feeling brought on by a play that's inept on its own terms.

* "Pieces of the Sky," Gem Theatre, Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday, 6 p.m. Ends Feb. 17. $16.50-$24.50. (714) 741-9550. Running time: 2 hours.

Patricia Boyette: Sarah

Walter A. Lutz, Jr.: Patrick

Cliff Rolfe: Henry

David Allen Jones: Joshua

Mark Wilson: Michael

A Grove Theater Center production, Kevin Cochran and Charles Johanson, producers. By David Paterson. Directed by Kevin Cochran. Sets: Mark Klopfenstein. Costumes: Terri L. Nista. Lights: David Darwin. Sound: David Ortega. Stage manager: Eric Johanson.

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