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THEATER REVIEW

'Don Juan in Chicago' Tells Winsome Tale

November 05, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The West Coast Ensemble gets gold stars for presenting the West Coast premiere of David Ives' "Don Juan in Chicago." As he did in "All in the Timing," his compendium of clever, language-besotted one-acts, Ives invents an irresistible premise and has fun making good on its promise. Ives' plays are deeply literate but free of pretension, filled with proof of how little book learnin' actually helps people.

Merging the story of Don Juan and Faust, Ives creates a honey of a pickle for his hero. When the play opens in 1599, Don Juan (Rocco Vienhage) is a studious lad of 30, with languorous pre-Pre-Raphaelite hair and ethereal yearnings. Feeling his first hint of mortality, Don Juan worries he won't have time to sate his love of books and philosophy before he dies. Enter an asthmatic Mephistopheles (Michael Zemenick), coughing upon every dramatic arrival, looking like Count Chocula in a high-neck cape (the witty costumes are by Mia Gyzander).

Taking advantage of Don Juan's ignorance of all things sexual, the devil agrees to bestow immortality if Don Juan sleeps with a new woman every day, and never the same woman twice. He's dust if he fails to accomplish this. Thinking a daily seduction will take about three minutes out of each day, Don Juan agrees.

*

Cut to 1996. Don Juan, now going by the name Don Johnson, lives in a seedy Chicago bachelor pad. As effectively embodied by Vienhage, he's looking seedy too, his poetic curls in an oily ponytail, his sunglasses chic, his body weary, his soul exhausted. Where he had once dreamed of living in an age not ruled by "the peso and the pence," he finds himself in an endless hell of sleazy seduction, neurotic women, health certificates and lies, lies, lies. He hasn't read a book since Tolstoy died. For Don Johnson, it's "another day, another Dolores." "Life kind of flattens out," he notes, "after you pass the big four-oh. Oh."

We really feel for this ageless Don Juan. Unlike a real-life Lothario, our Don Juan really can't help his behavior. When he surveys his own life, he sees emptiness. Ives allows him a poetic rumination, which Vienhage delivers with a lovely despair: "My life is a shell / content free / Hold it to you ear / And you could hear the sea."

Most of the play is in verse, a form that, for Ives, is like splashing in a pool on a hot day. He gets quite funky with rhyme at times.

Directed by Les Hanson, the production moves along at a breezy pace. It lacks a final layer of polish, though, as if it needed one more week of rehearsal. The more populous second-act scenes, which find a fair number of occupants in Don Johnson's Chicago apartment, look more clumsy than they should.

Vienhage is good and even touching as the sleazy-by-necessity hero, barely keeping alive his poetic nature. Zemenick made me laugh every time he appeared in his ridiculous cape and George Hamilton hair, coughing. As the sarcastic eunuch-like servant Leporello, Andrew Morris pushes the nerdy aspects of his character; he needs to relax a bit (he seems to be doing the young Al D'Amato). Mary McBride, Milda Dacys and Meg Mulkey are all effective as the women Don Juan wrongs or almost wrongs in one way or another.

Ending with a fairy-tale romantic flourish, the play remains slender but it is always enjoyable. When Leporello frantically goes into the audience to procure a woman for a fading Don Juan who has lost the will to seduce, he seizes one woman and shouts, "How about her, master?" Answers our dejected hero, barely looking up from the stage where he sits in a slump: "I've already slept with her." Who knew Don Juan-ism could be this charming?

* "Don Juan in Chicago," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Runs in repertory with "Eleemosynary." Ends Dec. 15. (213) 525-0022. $18. Running time:2 hours, 15 minutes.

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