Approaching the end of Mac Wellman's new "The Lesser Magoo," at Ivy Substation, a character remarks that it's hard to have a conversation "with people acting so, so . . . random."
That same quality also makes it hard to maintain interest in "The Lesser Magoo."
It begins promisingly, with a scene depicting a job interview from hell. Poor Torque (Paul Gutrecht) is on the hot seat, interrogated by the hard-edged Curran (Jennifer Griffin) while her boss Candle (Ryan Cutrona) snorts insults from the side.
Torque can't quite understand their questions. They speak in Wellmanesque--a combination of slang, technical jargon, made-up nonsense and the kind of real words that require a trip to the dictionary. At least Torque understands more of the jargon than we do. Still, it's easy to grasp the essential dynamic of this conversation and to sense that something is at stake.
The rest of the play doesn't manage as much. It moves to Candle's country estate. The host, his wife Ruth (Christi Engel) and daughter Tessara (Sarah Jean Abramson) are entertaining Curran plus distant relatives Candle Prosper (William Mesnik), who has just retired from the Senate, and Sycorica (Lena Starostina), from somewhere deep in Asia. Also on hand are the effusive author Gabriel Pleasure (William Gonta), the silent mathematical genius Foss (Richard Tyson), a former employee's ghost (William Martin Brennan) and the caterer Shimmer (Gutrecht).
The suggested narrative of the first scene vanishes, replaced by mostly aimless talk and occasional, inexplicable choruses of song. Individual phrasings are sometimes clever, but self-consciously so. The most comprehensible speech is the ex-senator's rumination on liberal fatigue, but it's so uncharacteristically obvious that it might as well be introduced by a placard labeled "Author's Political Statement."
Bottom's Dream is certainly an appropriate company to stage "The Lesser Magoo," for much of the play has the quality of a dreamscape, and near the end Gabriel emerges wearing a donkey's head, a la Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The cast's facility with Wellman's eccentric style--and their commitment to it--is much clearer than the script itself. Director Katherine Owens, composer Michael Roth and designers Susan Gratch and Trevor Norton occasionally create a spark of magic, but the script usually confounds such attempts.
To be fair, this is the last play in Wellman's "Crowtet," a group of four plays. The other three haven't been produced here. Maybe they would make all the difference--then again, this one hardly inspires a desire to see the others.
* "The Lesser Magoo," Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 1. $15. (310) 231-0446. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.