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THEATER REVIEW : A Fellow Who Can't Knock His Socks Off : John Patrick Shanley's Comedy About a Fetish Splits Laughs by Gender

May 24, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Don't let the title of John Patrick Shanley's new play, "Psychopathia Sexualis," scare you off. This is not a serious examination of aberrant sexual stirrings as in Krafft-Ebbing's famous treatise, as the title and the program notes would have you believe. The sexual peculiarity that sets the action in motion--a sock fetish, to be exact--is but a red herring in argyle. But "Psychopathia" is, through its sleek first act, a smart new comedy about men and their befuddlements and a shrink who may just be the personification of evil.

Originally produced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the play opened Thursday night at the Mark Taper Forum under the extremely elegant hand of director Dan Sullivan. The play's first half is perfectly poised between daffy comedy and believable human neurosis, which Shanley combines so well that although you never know what wacky thing is coming next, you believe it when it comes.

The second half, though still funny, is much more predictable. It centers on women. Unlike the women in Shanley's last play--"Four Dogs and a Bone" and in his most famous movie script, "Moonstruck"--the women here are far less interesting than their befuddled mates.

The play opens on an after-dinner conversation in the living room (handsomely designed by Andrew Wood Boughton) of a conventional and house-proud man, where even the fine china at the top of the sideboard is lit. Here, the lord of the manor, Howard (Gregory Itzin), listens to the travails of his struggling artist friend, Arthur (Matt Servitto). As in the equally sleekly written "Four Dogs," the conversation has all kinds of sinister subtext swirling beneath forced-sounding avowals of friendship. Through a convoluted and very funny premise, Arthur persuades Howard to go see the shrink from hell, Dr. Block (John Aylward).

What follows is one of the funniest scenes about therapy and power ever played out on the stage. Assured of his own position and self-knowledge, Howard enters the doctor's lair a smug, retired mutual fund advisor who has analyzed his own dreams extensively, with the help of the books of Carl Jung. Howard is reduced in a matter of minutes to a simpering wet rag, analyzed against his will and his own carefully maintained illusions by a brilliant opponent, who is as dead-on as he is ruthless.

In Itzin's deeply satisfying performance, Howard transforms from a well-heeled, airtight yuppie to a mental patient who staggers as if he were walking in slippers. Aylward is hilarious as the relentlessly confrontational Dr. Block. It's as if the meanest, biggest bully in the schoolyard suddenly had three Ph.D.s. and could beat you up without touching you.

The play's second half switches to the women folk, to Howard's wife, Ellie (Talia Balsam), whose pettiness has a uniquely generous side, and Arthur's fiancee, the Texas bombshell Lucille (Park Overall), the strongest character in the show and the least interesting. "A hillbilly Aztec Evita" is how one character describes this woman, whose hero, John Wayne, represents all the things that men aren't these days but women damn well have to be.

Utterly without self-doubt, Lucille is a woman strong enough to go into battle for her man and loving enough to forgive him for his weakness. She is a symbol of all-knowing femininity, and Overall plays her as if she lives in a world as platonically sealed from real trouble as a sitcom. Her second-act visit to Dr. Block is utterly without the tension and purpose of the first.

And the putt-putt-putt of second-act punch lines is much more sitcom-like than in the first, where the jokes spring from truly unpredictable situations and recognizable human reactions. Sullivan seems to have surrendered to the utter simplicity of Act 2 and directed as if giving us the stage version of "Designing Women."

"When it comes to matters of the heart, man are all cartoon characters," confesses Ellie, confident as always. But it's really the women who are cartoon characters here, while the men have all the complex motivations. By painting the men and women as unequal partners in the search for forgiveness and redemption, Shanley has de-fanged what starts out as a sophisticated depiction of sexual struggle in the age of psychoanalysis. The jokes are always good, whether they define confusion or are simply a consolation prize for characters not fully written.

* "Psychopathia Sexualis," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends June 30. $28-$35.50. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000, TDD (213) 680-4017. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Psychopathia Sexualis

Gregory Itzin: Howard

Matt Servitto: Arthur

John Aylward: Dr. Block

Park Overall: Lucille

Talia Balsam: Ellie

A Center Theatre Group production. By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets Andrew Wood Boughton. Costumes Jane Greenwood. Lighting Pat Collins. Original sound design Steven M. Klein. Resident sound design Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.

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