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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Writing Makes the Difference in One-Acts

Tired sitcom formula smothers a play about arson. Rich characters lend intense drama to another about a presidential poisoning.

June 13, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A one-act about partners torn between saving their restaurant and torching the joint would seem to be as sure a premise as a play can rest on. A one-act about a U.S. senator's wife accused of poisoning Bill Clinton with exotic herbs would seem to be, at best, straining for effect.

But ". . . Into The Fire," a one-act double-bill at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, shows that premise isn't everything. Execution is, and there's a wide gap between the execution by playwright Bart Baker in his "Going Out of Business," and Scott Davis Jones in his infinitely more interesting "Dark of the Woods."

Baker immediately starts things off on the wrong tone, having his quartet of restaurant partners--accountant Frank (Danny Neiman), host Mick (Kelly Edward Nelson), barkeep Bobby (Trey Alexander) and kitchen staff head Lannie (Casey Payden)--mouth off to each other as if they were in an R-rated "Cheers" episode. The writing here is strangled by the desperate sitcom formula of a laugh every fourth or fifth line.

Baker also gives part of his game away when Mick calls Bobby "Tarantino." The cuss-filled dialogue is only ersatz Quentin Tarantino, though, with none of that writer's verbal musicality or surprises. Baker's only surprise comes when he turns his play around 180 degrees, in a tense confrontation as the four contemplate arson.

Even at this more satisfying dramatic point, however, Baker misses the full weight of what could have been a powerful morality tale because he has only sketched in his characters. Under Joshua Ravetch's direction, the actors do their best with their assignments, strutting around in poses, with only Neiman exploring a deeper level of self-loathing.

Jones' "Dark of the Woods" more cleverly reveals its dramatic hand, portentous line by portentous line. Director Allan Vint immediately establishes a mid-evening mood of Pinteresque dread, as a stern, bald-headed inquisitor named Morrison (Kirk B.R. Woller) queries the very prim Laura (Wylie Small). He seems strangely interested in her herb garden. We are very interested to listen in.

*

Laura's husband, Dan (Donald Agnelli), enters, exuding a businessman's end-of-the-day exhaustion. But he is actually a U.S. senator, and offstage in the adjacent room are Hillary and Chelsea Clinton--with Bill on an upstairs bed, suffering a potentially fatal poisoning after a meal prepared by Laura. Her exotic, organic herbs may be the source of the poison, though Dan can't imagine Laura intended any foul play.

The power in Jones' writing is that he makes us feel Laura's passion for New Age philosophy one minute, her emotional suffocation in the role of congressional wife the next, and her resentment coursing beneath it all. Morrison, a by-the-books Secret Service man, suspects something evil in Laura's non-Christian, feminist ways: He conducts a literal witch hunt, and "Dark of the Woods" suddenly becomes a delirious, rich play of ideas and characters.

Small and Woller are brilliantly cast. Small combines Hillary Clinton's intellectual certitude and Pat Nixon's crisp etiquette, but with a wild woman gurgling underneath. Woller's Morrison is frighteningly authoritarian, but only gradually reveals this, like a fine tactician.

DETAILS

* WHAT: " . . . Into The Fire."

* WHERE: Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 4124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays.

* HOW MUCH: $12.

* CALL: (818) 509-9651.

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