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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Football Pants--and Other Things Men Yearn For

It's a guy thing, says writer-comedian Robert Peacock. His play 'Athlete of the Year' tries to provide insights into men's carefully tended field of dreams.

May 16, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few guys ever come close to being "Athlete of the Year." But the daydream is always there, encouraged by Little League trophies and memories of high school touchdowns. The fantasy survives, feeding on the vicarious thrills of the Super Bowl and the World Series.

Women just don't understand it.

But writer-comic Robert Peacock tries to explain it to them in his one-man show, "Athlete of the Year," opening tonight at the Whitefire Theatre. While the play is undeniably anchored in the male perspective, he hopes it gives women some insights.

The show was born of a 20-minute stand-up routine Peacock did at the Improv in Irvine about how he zones out during conversations with his wife. "What I'm thinking about while this is happening is usually baseball or football or fishing," Peacock said. "I wanted to see if I could find a way to visualize that, make it visual for an audience. I wanted to do more than just a setup and a punch line. The thread was sports. It's about moments in my life, and sports happened to be part of it."

In the script, Peacock's wife, Esther Gray Peacock--who directs this production--sends him out to clean up their garage. His life is in that garage, in boxes, and his past begins unreeling before him.

The idea also appealed to Peacock's longtime friend, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who is executive producer of this staging of "Athlete."

Foxworthy, star of "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," credits Peacock with inspiring his comedy career. Foxworthy was inspired by seeing Peacock at the Punchline in their hometown of Atlanta. He recalls re-creating Peacock's routine during coffee breaks from his job at IBM, even before the two met. A friendship blossomed, and Peacock is now one of the writers for Foxworthy's hit series.

Foxworthy says it's Peacock's honesty that makes "Athlete of the Year" work. "The things we find funny are not the bizarre," he says. "Once you establish that line of trust with an audience--that there are other people out there doing and thinking the same thing--that's when you make the connection. It's almost like holding a mirror up. They see themselves."

The same is true of his own comedy material: The jokes that work the best are those that strike closest to home. He quotes one of his running "redneck" gags: "If your front porch collapses and kills more than three dogs, you're a redneck. Well, that's my uncle in North Carolina. You're saying it, and seeing people hit each other in the ribs, or point at each other. It's not something made up. The closer you keep to the truth, the better it works."

And the truth is that men like Peacock and Foxworthy are sensitive guys. Really. Take, for instance, the Atlanta Braves victory in the 1995 World Series. After the final game, Foxworthy called Peacock and said, "Did you cry?" Peacock responded, "Yeah--did you cry?"

"Now, that was a sensitive moment," Foxworthy says, chuckling. Peacock even called his wife into the room to witness his emotional demonstration. She shrugged it off, saying it was just a baseball game.

"We thought we were being sensitive," Foxworthy adds. "It was part of my soul."

The athletic memories stored in Peacock's garage-set also comprise part of that masculine soul. During the show, Peacock pulls his old high school football uniform out of a box and says, "I'm going to put this damn thing on." (He confesses to having actually done this.)

"Pulling those tight pants up, it's something I miss. I really miss a lot of those feelings," Peacock says. "I'm sure there's some hidden sexuality there somewhere."

That draws another laugh out of Foxworthy. "I know my butt never looked better than it did in a pair of football pants," Foxworthy adds. "But you can't wear them to the grocery store, Robert. That's the problem."

* "Athlete of the Year," plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Ends June 9. Tickets: $12.50. Call (818) 986-0119.

*

More Guy Stuff: Another angle on the guy thing is laid bare in John Walsh's "Crossfire," in its world-premiere run at the Lionstar Theatre. The play came out of the Showtime/Patchett-Kaufman series, a project that sponsors reading of new plays. (Another play from the series, "In the Moonlight Eddie," is now at the Pasadena Playhouse.)

Director Richard Kline has been with the play since its original reading. Probably best known as Larry Dallas on "Three's Company," Kline is also a busy director on television and stage, and received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle directing award for Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" at the Melrose Theatre.

Though he usually works with light comedy, Kline was intrigued with this script's distinctive use of dialogue and its depiction of three comic--and eventually tragic--drug pushers trying to define their territory in Queens. Kline remembers growing up in Queens himself, and being protected by young hoods like these when he was a "short guy with a crew cut doing Jerry Lewis impressions in junior high school."

Kline says the play is on the same wavelength as "Pulp Fiction," offbeat and sometimes volatile.

"This playwright," Kline says, "knows how to write natural dialogue, but also knows how to deliver what seems to be unintentionally funny lines. But there's a violent strain to it. That attracted me, because I come from a world of directing sitcoms and light classic comedies. I wanted to do something modern, and a little gritty."

* "Crossfire" plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays at the Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Ends June 30. Tickets: $10. Call (213) 660-8587.

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