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Stumbling Along With 'Frank & Mary'

THEATER REVIEW

June 20, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

One of the hippest little theaters in town, Glaxa Studios, presents happening performance artists and theater groups that seem to prize archly absurdist plays with plenty of attitude and energy. A high level of professionalism, however, is apparently optional.

Hence, from the group Wild Orphans, comes the marriage vaudeville "Frank & Mary and Mr. & Mrz. Burnett," an uneven melange of sketch and song that feels like an evening's entertainment at a subversive summer camp or an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as written by Edward Gorey.

*

Staged on a platform with no wing space and rudimentary lighting, "Frank & Mary" stumbles along, going from skit to song, collecting a post-modernist outlook on love and marriage that has some charm--if you can overlook a certain physical awkwardness and some thematic discontinuity.

The stories are narrated in a third-person children's-book style by the actors. When the quintessential early-'60s married couple Frank and Mary go to the store, they encounter a huge door they cannot open. Or, they come up against a giant, horribly smelly hard-boiled egg that they have to sink their arms into in order to move. Or the pair gets robbed and grotesquely killed.

Don't worry, though, they return unscathed--they are elastically alive, like a silent film comic whose physical travails are impossibly exaggerated.

The author of these surrealist skits, Thom Vernon, plays Frank as an overgrown puppy, a lug, a nice guy who gets inordinate joy out of watching Mary's legs or helping her maneuver her high heels over a cobblestone street. He maintains a childlike innocence, even when Mary catches him on the sofa with another woman. Mary is two kinds of American womanhood, played by two actresses, who take turns directing the various skits as well.

Adele Robbins is the helpful, stand-by-your-man Mary, while the funny Ann Cusack is the sharper, more knowing, more easily irritated Mary. The couple is placed firmly pre-Kennedy assassination by Frank's Rat Pack cloths and Mary's crinoline skirts and by the couple's sunny assurance about their gender roles and duties, even when tackling confusing problems like a 20-foot rotten egg.

Interspersed between the skits are the song stylings of Bill Burnett and Suzy Williams, a large Sonny and petite Cher, who play Mr. and Mrz. Burnett. Their funky, bluesy songs about love and loss are ostensibly counterpoints to the skits, but they add no direction to a voicey evening that goes every which way but arrives nowhere in particular.

"Frank & Mary" has an amateurish or scattershot quality that asks to be lovable, but it asks too often.

* "Frank & Mary and Mr. & Mrz. Burnett," Glaxa Studios, 3707 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. through June 22; resumes July 12. Ends July 27. $10. (213) 969-4075. Running time: 90 minutes.

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