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STAGE | THEATER REVIEW

Breaking Up

Two current plays dramatize divorce in effective though somewhat flawed ways.

June 05, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Walking Wounded," at the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, presents an ugly divorce negotiation, but playwright-director Lynn Mamet is out for something more. Despite the firm fourth wall, Mamet wants us to feel like we're eavesdropping on bitter, sniping marrieds Elliot (Donald Agnelli) and Emma (Wylie Small), and their sparring attorneys, David (Les Williams) and Phillip (Patrick Wood).

But just as the play is about emotional warfare, it is at war with itself. As director, Mamet creates a mood of intimacy--especially as the couple reveal secrets about their son's autism, which has ravaged their marriage. Yet Mamet the writer subverts the intimacy with epic speeches that invariably take the longer path to get to their point. Elliot mentions early on that Emma talks and talks--but it isn't Emma. Everyone talks and talks, not always powerfully.

The result is a curious evolution from a catty "L.A. Law"-like episode into a contemporary take on Eugene O'Neill's theater, in which characters reach catharsis through speeches. Mamet's playwright brother, David, is famously anti-speech, and it's an interesting challenge she poses: Dare to listen. The point to the listening isn't for a message, but for the notion that each character--even, or especially, Wood's effectively cynical, bottom-line Phillip--has a piece of the truth.

The cast conveys this, though it sometimes sounds trapped by the dialogue's tendency to meander. While Agnelli and Small reach an O'Neill-style catharsis, and Casey Payden's turn as the family's beleaguered nanny is heartfelt, more emotional savagery is called for in this yuppie war zone.

* "The Walking Wounded" at Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m Fri.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun. Ends June 22. $12. (818) 509-9651.

*

Ed Proudfoot's quiet play, "Companion Piece," at Chandler Studio Theatre, takes another couple through dissolution, then full circle to a hesitant reconciliation.

Written specifically for this company, Proudfoot's two-act blends nearly all the concerns of director Michael Holmes' theater: the inching toward and away from love; painting as life; the search for transcendence; the mix of the cerebral and the emotional. There are few companies in town that balance these concerns better, though this time the full-circle love story doesn't quite convince.

Parker (Joseph Dean Vachon), an entrepreneur who is tired of his painter-wife, Mia (Julie Proudfoot), seems to find emotional renewal with Beth (Claire Mills), a struggling photographer who clerks in his Phoenix store. Mia is frighteningly desperate to cling to Parker, and Parker's head is way too into his stargazing hobby. But generally we like these flawed people because the playwright does. Mia paints; Parker writes haikus; Beth wants to make photos that matter.

They all count for something, which is why when loss happens in "Companion Piece," it hurts. For a new play as human and flawed as its characters, "Companion Piece" is handled with care.

* "Companion Piece," Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fri.; 7 p.m. Sun. Ends June 22. $12.50. (818) 908-4094.

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