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Family in Distress

Uninspiring kinships dim the appeal of 'Carbondale Dreams'


To theater savvy folks who don't know the place, the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts might sound like a Mecca for acolytes of Method acting, and a home for kitchen-sink naturalistic plays. But whatever styles were associated with the late Meisner, they are not carrying over to the resident company, headed by Martin Barter.

Witness Barter's latest production, the Los Angeles premiere of Steven Sater's "Carbondale Dreams," which has no truck with naturalism at all--even though it includes a kitchen sink.

Part of Sater's quartet of plays about a family in the middle American burg of Carbondale, "Dreams" is designed as a semi-absurdist triptych, following the homecoming of David (Trey Alexander), who's visiting from Manhattan. He's offstage in the first part, in which his parents Arnold (Robert Silver) and Barone (Barbara Bostock) get ready to meet him. Under the surface, though, it's really about how Arnold and Barone live in their separate, insular worlds.

In the same surface way, the second section shows the actual homecoming--a disaster, of course--hosted by David's frantic, overweight sister, Beth (Casey Payden). Underneath, it suggests how Arnold's and Barone's disconnectedness has infected their offspring. Seldom have so many talked at the same time while nobody listened.

The third section curiously ends with David visiting brother Bradley's (John Burish) place, which he shares with wife Candi (Kelly Maguire), who's plagued with awful dental problems. The dynamic here is all on the surface: David can't understand why Bradley doesn't get out of this dead town if he's so unhappy. Look at me, David says.

Which is the problem. The more we look at David, the less we understand him. He may be Sater's central character, but David is like a receding point on the horizon: present but so far away. Alexander plays David as though he's the only normal member of a clan of mostly absurdist comic stereotypes, and there's an unintended snobby condescension permeating the characterization and writing. When David urges Bradley to come to New York, it sounds less like familial concern than a pitch to go where only the Hippest dare.

New York as the escape from the dead zone of mid-America is an outmoded stage notion only a New Yorker could love; "Carbondale Dreams" enjoyed a long, off-Broadway run. The incompleteness and odd dramatic structuring of the play may be explained by its inclusion in a quartet--the sequels may round things out. But David's uninspiring family is hardly a lure to find out.

"Carbondale Dreams," Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Ends April 20. $12. (818) 509-9651.

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