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Theatre Review : Spinning Black Comedy Out of Nielsens

April 02, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The Packalittles take their responsibility as a Nielsen family very seriously. Way out in the middle of the Mojave desert, they watch TV night and day. They tell time by it. "Supper be ready by 'Star Trek.' " Because of some statistical blip, their viewing choices carry a huge and disproportionate influence in the Nielsen ratings and, therefore, in American culture. Also, they are completely out of their minds.

"Blood Red Rabbit," a presentation of the Fabulous Monsters at the Glaxa Studios in Silver Lake, is an absurdist, often very funny black comedy that takes new ammunition to familiar targets, such as our pervasive confusion of television reality and real reality. "Remember when the Menendez brothers had that show where they killed their parents?" asks one Packalittle daughter, ominously. Playwright Kevin Hincker should prune the play. At two hours, it's a premise stretched too far, though dotted with wonderful bits.

Teenage Katie (Kelly Johnston) sucks down Coke and cornflakes while beaming at the overhead screen, basking in the comforting glow of commercials for Lysol and Five-Minute Abs. She has virtually been raised in captivity, save for the constant companionship of the box. She smears blue eye shadow over her lids hoping that the man from Nielsen will come. She's been writing letters to him in her Daddy's name full of warm assurances that, if he comes, he will not be shot.

Daddy is Burton (Nicholas Lewis), a combustible mountain man with a trigger finger and a fondness for fondling his daughter. He firmly controls what Katie may and may not watch. She may not watch "Friends," for instance. "Because of their hair."

Hiding out in the shadows is the prodigal daughter Rhonda (Kristin Norton). In her ripped Army fatigues and blond pixie haircut, she looks like Peter Pan who came back deranged from Desert Storm. She's been robbing liquor stores for seven years ("since 'Hill Street' went off") or since she accidentally killed her mother (or so she believes).

Into their midst comes the unsuspecting Nielsen man, Peter Odin (Hincker), a nebbishy bureaucrat who remains unfailingly polite even as he is assaulted and tied up in the basement. The family mistakes Peter for a man with power, a man who can explain why "Bonanza" was canceled. Peter's presence sets off a power play to gain control of the household, and of the Nielsen box. But Peter has his own agenda.

Director Robert Prior has his actors play their absurd motivations in dead earnest, with good comic payoff. Only Norton as Rhonda takes her earnestness into overacting. As Katie, Johnston is especially funny when nervously singing the theme from "Cheers" while her dad is beating the crap out of Peter.

Stretched as it is, particularly in the middle, "Blood Red Rabbit" offers nuggets of invaluable wisdom, such as this exchange. Peter: "Violence is never the answer." Burton: "It is if you want to kill somebody."

* "Blood Red Rabbit," Glaxa Studios, 3707 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Ends April 13. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours.

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