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THEATER REVIEW

'Peoria's' Satire of TV Business Hits the Mark

July 25, 1996|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PASADENA — Somewhere in Hollywood there are, no doubt, sober and thoughtful people of integrity. But thankfully none of them appears in "Walking Peoria."

William Blinn's acidly funny satire of the TV business inaugurates a professional company operated by alumni of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the Michael Thoma Theatre on the AADA campus in Pasadena. The title refers to industry slang for a rube (as in "Yes, but will it play in Peoria?"). Walking Peorias are the ordinary viewers who watch even the worst dreck because, as one character memorably puts it, "they're dumb and ugly and have no hope."

The Walking Peoria of the moment is one Mike Cornell (a suitably bland D.J. Berg), a dull-as-margarine family man who wins instant fame after he saves a drowning boy. This single act of heroism is enough to land him a gig as executive producer of a TV movie about his life.

Outside of rampaging naivete, Mike has two problems. The boy's mother (Kimberly Cardinale, overdoing a Noo Yawk honk) is a philandering mob wife who's all for the movie as long as it doesn't reveal her identity. And the writer-director, Raymond Poole (the incomparable character actor Basil Hoffman), belongs to that peculiar Hollywood breed of hacks with thin skins.

In viewing Hollywood as a wasteland of cynicism and betrayal, "Walking Peoria" doesn't exactly break new ground. But Blinn--a TV veteran who created "Starsky and Hutch," wrote "Brian's Song" and has many other TV credits--reveals a biting wit that easily rivals previous show-biz satires like David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow."

Key to the show's success is Hoffman, whose unforgettably deadpan portrayal suggests a Walking Burbank. With his protruding eyes and hound-dog face, the actor nurtures a terrific comic presence marked by impeccable timing.

"Walking Peoria" is far from perfect. The script is repetitive and overlong, and the subplot involving the Mafia is too underdeveloped to work. Director Parke Perine and the stage crew permit a number of irritating technical gaffes, including painfully slow scene changes and amateur-hour lighting flubs.

Even so, as a trenchant satire on an over-satirized business, "Walking Peoria" rings true. But there are also a few concessions to fiction. At one point, two Hollywood players make a lunch reservation at a trendy restaurant--for noon. C'mon--only rubes would be found chowing down before 1 p.m.

* "Walking Peoria," American Academy of Dramatic Arts, 2550 Paloma St., Pasadena. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; this Sunday, Aug. 11 and 25, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 25. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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