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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Play Enters 'Zone' but Disappoints as Drama

'Disconnect!' embodies the best of Rod Serling yet fails to rise above the limited emotional range of the two actors.

May 23, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frustrated by the stage, Rod Serling turned to television to write his "plays," mostly for his series, "The Twilight Zone." Since then, the process has reversed, and a lot of playwrights have turned to Serling in creating their own "Twilight Zone" plays. The latest attempt is "Disconnect!" from John Beckman and Lee Clarke at the Chandler Studio Theatre.

Just so we have our terms in order, let's be clear about what's meant by a "Twilight Zone" play. Like any "Twilight Zone" episode, it must violate known rules of time and space, dabble in themes of life and death, and deliver a pat liberal-humanist message. (That last caveat is why the deliberately open-ended "The X-Files" is absolutely not today's equivalent.)

"Disconnect!" obeys these parameters almost slavishly. A mountain climber named Frank (Mark Berens) finds himself in some twilight-ish zone, where God (Beckman) is munching on chips and dip and watching "Gilligan's Island." Seeing that his rope is severed, Frank figures he must have died in a fall and now is in purgatory.

That means God is going to review Frank's life--or at least the highlights and low lights: Frank with his doting mom; Frank with his gay buddy, Louie; Frank with his jilted girlfriend; Frank with his Asian hooker-lover while he's in the Army; above all, Frank with his vicious, abusive father.

Unfortunately for the play, this means a flurry of flashbacks with Beckman playing all the characters opposite Berens' Frank. Beckman may be God, but he is not Paul Muni; he plays all the women and Louie with the same vaguely effeminate behavior and isn't nearly frightening enough as Frank's dad.

That Beckman is also director indicates some serious miscalculations here. A play this unfinished and raw demands a fresh set of directorial eyes, but instead feels deeply ingrown.

If the playing were electric, it might offset the deadeningly repetitive dramaturgy. If Frank's purgatory was unsettling, it might offset the thinly felt acting.

Just as these actors' limited emotional ranges become as predictable as the next flashback, so is the inevitability of the good-for-you liberal-humanist message in the "Twilight Zone" tradition.

While Beckman is only shticky here (he's been much better in other productions), Berens is a young actor who, with time, could become much stronger.

So could "Disconnect!"--but only if it disconnects itself from all things Serling.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Disconnect!"

* WHERE: Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through June 9.

* HOW MUCH: $10.

* CALL: (818) 409-9550.

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