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THEATER | THEATER REVIEW

Fatal Dose of Black Comedy

'Urned Happiness' is doomed by lame story and lack of humor.

March 13, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some critics claim that playwrights should never, ever direct their own plays. Those of us who disagree are fond of citing Shakespeare, Brecht and Robert Wilson as perfectly fine writer-directors.

This shuts up the critics for awhile--until a disaster like writer-director Ernest Kearney's "Urned Happiness" comes along. Now, what do we say?

In this case, the less said, the better. At Theatre Unlimited, Kearney is trying to ape Joe Orton's brand of black comedy, the kind where the family gathers after the funeral of a relative they all hated, almost as much as each hates the other.

Orton, however, ensures that his most dramatic characters are the ones living, not dead. (Though, to be sure, some of the living may die along the way.) Kearney's dead Mother Hapshaw--now reduced to ashes in an urn--is so much more interesting than the living characters that the whole, awful play feels like a cheat.

Sisters Kim and Maggie (Lisa Livoti and Mary Burkin, both looking terribly lost onstage) moan about their husbands, and agree that Mom was a despicable old hag who nobody liked.

After vanishing a year, Kim's smart-aleck hubby Lloyd (John Serembe) has, for no known reason, surfaced to attend the funeral of the woman he hated most.

Maggie's dumb lesser half Randolph (Craig Tolliver) just sits there.

So do we, trying to discern Kearney's point. We're still wondering after Maggie pummels an intruding clown (don't ask) named Mr. Bippy (Al Berman)--though the program mysteriously calls him "Billy-bob."

Kearney then has the nerve to contrive the phoniest of happy endings out of this mess, both softening the potentially Orton-like harshness of his black comedy and managing to deliver not one funny line during the entire show.

Serembe, a Shakespearean actor with the Eclectic Theatre Company, looks like he stumbled into the wrong writer-director's play.

Did he ever.

BE THERE

"Urned Happiness" at Theatre Unlimited, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends March 30. Tickets $12.50. (213) 939-7679.

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