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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Variety a Casualty of Evening's Light Tone

One-act comedies written by Group Repertory members includes small masterpiece 'Speechless in Seattle.'

July 11, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the umbrella title suggests, "Private People in Public Places" follows certain rules of character and setting. The eight one-acts, all written by Group Repertory Theatre members, are in such settings as parks, restaurants, coffeehouses. The people should be as few as possible.

Whether another rule demanded it or not, all the plays are comedies, thus lending a certain homogenization to this collection. Besides the obvious risks of one-act groupings, usually variety of tone is one of their benefits. Here, with a few exceptional moments, the tone is light.

The lightness is set by writer-actor Phil Olson, whose "The Nam" and "The Folksinger" (both directed by Art Shulman) begin the show's first and second halves. Both seem like "Mad TV" sketches in which Olson plays dim-bulb guys who are the butts of the jokes. His Vietnam vet security guard in "The Nam" is a funnier comic type than his dumb-and-dumber folk singer, but they're both repetitive.

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Shulman also carries heavy water in this show, writing two overlong pieces, the two-character "Beggars" and the solo piece, "Heavens" (both directed by Janice Davies). "Beggars" pits uptight Jane (Kathleen Taylor), ringing the charity bell in a park for a Salvation Army-type rescue mission, against panhandler Emmanuel (John R. Keller), who figures they're in competition with each other for handouts. He melts her Puritanical reserve too easily to be believed, but Taylor does a fine job of melting.

"Heavens" is a weakly unfunny monologue by an Orthodox Jewish air traffic controller (Shulman), trying to rhyme his every sentence--and making rhyme or reason of his unlikely life as a traditional Jew in a high-tech, high-stress workplace. Shulman, alas, doesn't sell it as actor or writer.

Thom Thomas' "Speechless in Seattle" ends the first half, but it should end the whole show. James Stellos is an impossible act to follow as a self-absorbed waiter serving a silent couple at an haute cuisine Seattle restaurant. It is one of those rare small masterpieces of comic riffing and style that recalls--and transcends--its TV roots (in this case, down to the city, "Frasier"). Thomas' and Stellos' combined lunacy, under John Payton's inspired direction, should be preserved in some kind of bottle.

The second half doesn't stand a chance. That's too bad, since Kimberley J. Jacoby's pleasant slice-of-coffeehouse-life, "Waiting For Alice" (gently directed by Lori Street-Tubert) marries its characters--Olson's patient cartographer and Sally Richter's unpublished fiction writer--to the theme of carpe diem.

Shandi Sinnamon's "Stewed Tomatoes" (directed by Chris Winfield) unfortunately turns the tensions and poignancies surrounding senility into a terminally cute fantasy, complete with aging Mary (Gwen Van Dam) finding her Mr. Right (the dapper Edgar Mastin) even as she confuses him for her dead husband.

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Last, and perhaps least, is Carrie Ross' inexplicably titled "Looking At a Rhinoceros Can Be a Lonely Thing" (directed by Stan Mazin). Here, two homeless ex-exotic dancers (Cynthia Fancer and Bethany Carpenter) hold a cafe owner (the believable Diane Frank) hostage to show her their old routine. The piece's only interesting touch is having Taylor--the uptight religious woman in "Beggars"--return as a stripper doing a snake dance.

Payton, besides his stellar job on "Speechless," also designed the handsome, multitiered, multipurpose set. Far less needed is a chorus of Sinnamon and Stellos introducing each piece with quotes that sound right out of John Bartlett's. Observations from Albert Einstein and H.L. Mencken simply don't mix with these bits of "theater lite."

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Private People in Public Places."

* WHERE: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 20.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 769-7529.

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