COSTA MESA — Absurdist theater is so devilishly tricky to pull off. Several of the problems are evident in Laura Viramontes' staging of "The American Dream," one of two Edward Albee one-acts at Orange Coast College through Sunday.
Viramontes apparently feels that Albee's dialogue in "Dream" can stand alone without much interpretation by the actors, but in fact the piece should be performed much broader than life.
As Mommy, Crystal Malcom keeps herself fairly well restrained, but Matt Newman as Daddy is so restrained that he seems to be reading his lines off the page. Anastasia Sepulveda is pretty close to the mark, if a bit overboard, as their friend Mrs. Barker.
But David Leuluai is way off base as Grandma. This unnecessarily burlesqued characterization turns into little more than a drag act, a sort of zaftig Moms Mabley with a distracting habit of fluffing her bosom.
The Young Man's naive acceptance of his startling good looks should be played without ego, but Rocky Cerda comes off as smug and self-obsessed, particularly in his long monologue (which Viramontes has him speak woodenly, facing the audience).
Less absurdist is "Finding the Sun," directed by Jeffrey Roma. Its eight characters, named alphabetically (Abigail, Benjamin, Cordelia, etc.), arrive at the beach separately, but we soon discover they are all connected, except for Edmee and her teenage son Fergus.
Gertrude and Henden are seniors on their second marriage. Daniel and his wife, Cordelia, are Henden's son and Gertrude's daughter. Complicating things, as they always do, are Daniel's ex-lover Benjamin and his wife, Abigail.
As the relationships emerge, the emotions that hold these people together (and keep them apart) unfold as a fascinating chess game, and Roma has captured its rhythms. Jami McCoy opts for a stereotype as Gertrude, but Todd Veneman has an exceptionally realistic grasp of Henden--gentle and wise, and held back just enough.
Catherine Romano's characterization of wealthy divorcee Edmee is a bit shallow, but it's headed in the right direction. Most of the actors are notable for their honesty and the depth of detail they find in their characters.
As Fergus, Phil Poth is refreshingly bright and curious about the others on the beach. Mark Fletcher and Markell Pool make no excuses for the intricate, odd relationships between Daniel and Benjamin and their wives. The monologues by Sienna Spencer and Patricia Nelson as the wives are particularly touching and illuminating.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* "Two Short Albees," Drama Lab, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (714) 432-5640. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
THE AMERICAN DREAM:
David Leuluai: Grandma
Crystal Malcom: Mommy
Matt Newman: Daddy
Anastasia Sepulveda: Mrs. Barker
Rocky Cerda: Young Man
FINDING THE SUN:
Sienna Spencer: Abigail
Markell Pool: Benjamin
Patricia Nelson: Cordelia
Mark Fletcher: Daniel
Catherine Romano: Edmee
Phil Poth: Fergus
Jami McCoy: Gertrude
Todd Veneman: Henden
An Orange Coast College Repertory Theatre production of two one-act plays by Edward Albee. "The American Dream" directed by Laura Viramontes; stage manager Donna Ham. "Finding the Sun" directed by Jeffrey Roma; stage manager Tina Munoz.