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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

A Promising 'Coffin' Digs Itself Into a Hole

This two-man work boasts an enticing premise, but poor comic chemistry and trite conflict bog it down.

August 15, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Four Stories About the Life of a Coffin" is a promising but slight attempt by writers-actors Stephen Ingle and Gary Davis to build four connected scenes into a saga about a coffin--what it contains, who grieves over it, and (most interestingly) who handles it. The premise is so charged, even inspired, that it's a puzzlement how the results are so half-baked.

The first scene perfectly encapsulates the problems. Davis plays true-blue Kyle and Ingle plays his rebel brother Robert, who ran off to Hollywood for an acting career but has returned for their father's funeral. The trite conflict between the loyal and disloyal sons feels like dead weight here, when something far more dynamic is called for. Their conversation sounds like a record needle stuck on a scratch as Kyle keeps demanding Robert's respect for the family. The mother sounds like a character who would juice up the scene, but she never appears. The father, Morris, remains a mystery.

Things do get juiced up in the second scene, when the hearse breaks down on the way to the cemetery. The driver (Davis) nearly goes mad trying to get the hearse fixed by a dimwitted gas station attendant (Ingle), who is curious about the contents of the taped-down coffin. The actors give themselves some lively comic turns. It inches dangerously close to sitcom material (Bob Newhart meets the hicks comes to mind), but the scene's twists would be a bit much for the TV industry's standards and practices bureaucrats.

The second scene's macabre touches carry over into the third scene, and then over the edge. Ingle plays Pack, a grave robber, pestering Davis' gravedigger. The digger doesn't like to be out at dark, and Pack wants only a few items out of Morris' coffin. The tone is unsure, inching from farcical into creepy without firm control from director Brian Isaac Lester.

Morris (Ingle) finally appears in the last episode, where he meets Jeffrey (Davis) in purgatory. Jeffrey, one of the students murdered at Kent State, gives Morris a tour of his new home (light and sound designer Andy Wise inserts some strong otherworldly effects). For once in this work, which is more an amalgam of scenes than a play, the characters grow in each other's presence. The dead, it seems, have a much better time of it than the living.

Ingle is consistently the better actor except in this last scene, where he feels unsure as the older Morris character and Davis relaxes with his forever-young hippie guy. Their imbalance as a duo really fizzles the kind of comic chemistry that would lift the whole show. You can see where "Four Stories" wants to go; you just wish it would get there.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Four Stories About the Life of a Coffin."

* WHERE: Center Stage at the Enchanted Forest, 20929 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

* WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Ends Aug. 30.

* HOW MUCH: $10.

* CALL: (213) 935-9075.

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