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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Play Takes a Close Look at Family Ties and Absent Fathers

In 'The Dreamer,' a man reunites with the daughter he abandoned. The story is familiar to the director and lead actor, who were raised by single moms.

October 31, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright John Patrick Shanley is--no shock here--of Irish heritage. But he's latched on to the soul of New York's Italian neighborhoods as the source of much of his work, including "Moonstruck" and "Italian American Reconciliation."

An early Shanley play, "The Dreamer Examines His Pillow" written in the 1985, is no exception. It concerns a man reunited with his daughter years after deserting his family. The desperate young woman is seeking his advice about her relationship with a man who bears unmistakable similarities to her errant father.

A revival of "Dreamer" opens Friday at The Bitter Truth, a new 99-seat venue in North Hollywood. It seems particularly suitable in light of America's ongoing concern for single parents. It's also personally significant to its director, Carmen Maria Milito, and to C.J. Bau, the actor playing the father.

"I grew up without a father," Bau says. "If I had to reconnect with my father, I hope it would be in the same sort of capacity, or manner, that occurs in this play. The father and daughter rediscover each other. In that process they find a rebirth, a whole new life. The play is not really that dark. It's very uplifting."

Director Milito, who was raised in Brooklyn in the same insular type of neighborhood that Shanley writes about, says her father left home while her mother was pregnant with her. It was a large family, and she well remembers her mother's reaction to the desertion.

"You can go crazy," she says, "or be like my mom: Go out and work from shop to shop, piecework to piecework, to support all her children. And that's what she did. And we children watched each other. So I know what Shanley is talking about." She distinctly remembers her mother saying many times about her long-gone father, "He'll never sleep in his pillow comfortably."

The language in the play is also very familiar. Milito says it's a dialect still spoken in her old neighborhood. Nothing changes in New York, she explains.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Milito says, she encountered a lot of lost souls who were looking for that family connection, yearning to belong. She believes very strongly in the play's statement about the importance of family.

"We're not alone," she says, "and we do belong. And whatever family you may have--and it doesn't have to be a biological family--there are people out there for you. That message means a lot, especially today. It's never too late."

Bau adds, "The play gets you thinking about your own life, and your family. As Shanley says, 'We all spill over into each other, like patterns on a water-wheel.' "

* "The Dreamer Examines His Pillow," The Bitter Truth, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 8. $10-$12. Call (213) 466-1767 or (818) 953-9993.

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An Offer He Couldn't Refuse: Actor Seth Isler first saw the film "The Godfather" when he was about 10 years old and quickly became obsessed. It's become part of his life since then. He claims to have seen the film at least 200 times. Isler calls it the ultimate actors' movie.

During the past few years, he began doing scenes from the film, just for himself, doing the voices--Pacino, Brando, Caan and Duvall. He'd do it when he was stuck in traffic on the San Diego Freeway, at the beach, in bank lines and restaurants. Then, one day, he did the stunt at an actors' showcase, and he found it got laughs.

That was the genesis of Isler's one-man presentation, "The Godfather Workout," playing at Theatre East. In it, he plays 16 characters in 10 scenes from the film.

Why call it a workout? "It's extremely physical," Isler says. "By the time I'm done, I'm soaking wet. I had to condition myself for the show, putting on my sweats at 2 o'clock in the morning, going out and running. I haven't done that since I was in high school, and I'm 37 now."

Shifting from one character to another, he vaults over tables and chairs, sometimes with the aid of a trampoline. Doing a whole movie by yourself is fun, Isler says. But considering the physicality involved, maybe it's one of those things you shouldn't try at home.

* "The Godfather Workout," Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd. (over Jerry's Deli), Studio City. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 17. $15. Call (310) 392-3837 or (818) 238-2068.

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The Beast on Brand: For a long time James Barbour was over 7 feet tall. He was playing the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" at the Shubert Theatre. Now he's back down to his realistic 6-foot-3, and the Beast's hideous garb has been replaced by coveralls.

Barbour is now playing Jesus in a touring production of "Godspell," which begins a week's run at Glendale's Alex Theatre beginning Nov. 5, then spends a week in Phoenix and another at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. After a week's layoff, the show goes to Kansas City for a run.

Grounded in classical theater, Barbour says his musical life has been in Broadway shows, playing Billy Bigelow in "Carousel" and appearing in "The Secret Garden" and "Cyrano: the Musical." Off-Broadway, he does Shakespeare and O'Neill.

Barbour says one of the reasons he became an actor was that he wanted to express things to people, to make them think.

"That's why I like something like 'Godspell,' which allows people to see again what life is all about. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but it teaches and it shines. It's about relationships with each other, and hopefully that will extend out into the audience."

* "Godspell," Alex Theatre, 2316 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 10. $32.50-$37.50. Call (800) 233-3123.

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