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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Too Many Characters Ground 'Fallen Eagle'

Even the many scene shifts fail to advance the story of Charles A. Lindbergh, who is devoid of soul searching.

November 14, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a sudden shift in climate, the theme of Nazi sympathizers is in the air. "Mother Night," Keith Gordon's strong new movie, stars Nick Nolte as an American spy working undercover as a Nazi propagandist. There's also Jan Troell's film biography of Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who collaborated with Nazi occupiers.

Add to that list "Fallen Eagle: The Untold Story of Charles A. Lindbergh," writer-director Larry Cohen's meticulously researched bio-play about the tragic fall of Lindbergh from aviation hero to anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer.

What links Cohen's play with "Mother Night" and "Hamsun" is not just their perspectives on public men of moral poverty who dallied with treason. "Fallen Eagle" was also originally planned as a movie, which Cohen was to make with Oliver Stone producing.

The first of many problems here is that "Fallen Eagle," at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, feels like it still wants to be a movie.

Rather than the stage being liberating (the uncredited set covered in blaring New York Times headlines and simple furniture is nicely theatrical), the sprawling story sounds and looks caged in. Stuffed with short scenes forever shifting location, "Fallen Eagle" is in many structural ways still a movie.

In this way, it recalls Billy Wilder's remarkable and vastly underrated film, "Spirit of St. Louis," which crosscut between Lindbergh's 1927 New York-to-Paris flight and his life leading up to it.

Cohen does a little crosscutting of his own, but more interestingly picks up the story almost exactly where Wilder left off. Cohen is more interested in the Lindbergh tragedy--the spectacularly garish kidnapping of his child, his drift into isolationism, anti-Semitism and crude fascism, and the amazing ironies that finished out his life.

But where Wilder's film was stunningly intimate, with James Stewart as Lindbergh performing solo on screen for nearly half the movie, Cohen's play overflows with characters and personalities, as if afraid of having Lindbergh alone with himself.

There is an almost comical urge in this play to cart out every famous person of the period, from Edna Ferber to FDR to Henry Ford to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as if their presence heightens the drama.

Instead, they tend to entomb this as a piece of museum theater, while playing against the work's central theme: Lindbergh was a natural loner who turned his personal tragedy into misanthropy. Lindbergh was not of the crowd, and yet a crowd is what we get under Cohen's direction.

*

Actually, Cohen is very good at crowd control. There are dozens of scene shifts and 15 actors juggle no less than 38 parts. But more often than not, the characters appear to provide information rather than to propel the story forward. Even at naturally dramatic points in the story--during, for instance, the kidnapping and the subsequent trial that caught Lindbergh in a lie--they play out here stolidly, stiffly.

Act II is better, because it is more ironic, bitter and truly feels like the untold Lindbergh story. Yet Cohen's overly deliberate, even robotic, pacing drags down Kelly Edward Nelson's fairly chilly performance as Lindbergh.

As his perplexed author-wife, Kelly Maguire injects some desperately needed human notes and passions, as does Christopher Taylor as Lindbergh's equally perplexed friend Frank.

The supporting actors are far more uneven. Donald Agnelli displays a strong grasp of various sinister men. Trey Alexander on the other hand plays JFK with a Southern accent.

Both Alexander's and Chet Leonard's sound design and Nancy Mathews' versatile lighting create the perfect mood for a history play. And yet Cohen never quite gives us a history play. It's more of a history pageant, filled with fascinating facts and incidents about Lindy, but without the galvanic soul-searching this tragedy calls for.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Fallen Eagle: The Untold Story of Charles A. Lindbergh."

* WHERE: Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 15.

* HOW MUCH: $12.

* CALL: (818) 509-9651.

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