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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

2 One-Acts Suggest That Marriage Equals Death

Playwright Jim Hanna takes a dark look at love and life in 'Corpus' and 'A Dish Served Cold' at the Black Whole.

September 19, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright Jim Hanna has put the equation "marriage equals death" into high relief on the compact stage of the Black Whole Theatre in Van Nuys. His one-acts, "Corpus" and "A Dish Served Cold," are mannered and somewhat empty, but obsessively driven, especially where marriage and fatal attractions are concerned.

Hanna's most heavily stocked items are high emotions and lethal weapons. The combination works much better in the newer piece, "Corpus," directed with charming sloppiness by Patrick Wilkins.

Hanna sets up a love triangle: Jeff (Richard Speight Jr.), his girlfriend Med (Lucie Ayala) and lover on the side, Martha (Marika Becz). He then sets up three plot twists roughly corresponding to each player in the triangle, with three declarations of love and three betrayals in the bargain.

It is nearly as schematic as it sounds, but the geometry serves as counterpoint to the casual, grungy, comic tone that seems to be these actors' second nature. Ayala's Med is both a nervous wreck and hyper-suspicious of Jeff, who's such a veteran liar that she almost admires his tenacious deceitfulness. But she can hardly believe him even when he drags in Martha's bloody body. She musters just enough confidence to accept his marriage proposal and ring over the corpse.

Ayala plays Med as a young woman whose certainty of reality is undermined with each ensuing minute, but she plays things nicely cool. Speight's performance amounts to that of a good poker player, since his whole character is a kind of bluff. Becz has even more aces up her sleeve, and we can see how she attracts Jeff, even if she doesn't quite convince the audience.

*

In "Corpus," all the fun is in the watching. Like all too-clever-by-half plays, when it's over, it's over.

Hanna then comes on for a solo performance in "A Dish Served Cold."

Where the first piece felt like a play, "Dish" feels like a showcase. We're deliberately confused as to where we are in Todd Hansen's staging, which is the work's only interesting theatrical element. Hanna's Daniel is dressed in a sloppy attempt at black tie, and seems to be in a living room, only with a big wrapped gift--containing a bomb--a gun, and a stand-up mike and amplifier.

When Daniel starts speaking into the mike he never shuts up. It's his best friend's wedding, Daniel is an embittered best man delivering a toast, or rehearsing. Daniel has emotionally snapped while his pal is set for a life of bliss.

Daniel has set his life by his friend's compass: They were born on the same day, grew up with each other, and have been spiritual twins. But even twins hit forks in the road, and Daniel would rather jump off the road completely rather than see his bud part from him.

The problem with Hanna's piece is twofold: Daniel's inner life feels phony, more of a playwright's black joke than one invested with real angst. Hanna plays him like a burned-out stand-up comic; he walks on intensely bitter and just keeps it at the same caustic level. It's a curiously inverted harangue and its deeper points are vague.

Hanna, who seems unable to resist a plot twist, has one here that suggests the joke is on Daniel, but it's revealed right after Daniel has become tragic in our eyes. "A Dish Served Cold" needs a little more time in the kitchen.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Corpus" and "A Dish Served Cold."

* WHERE: Black Whole Theatre, 5920 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Oct. 5.

* HOW MUCH: $8.

* CALL: (818) 559-1263.

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