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STAGE | THEATER REVIEW

Less a Play Than a Pilot

Good-humored 'Crappie Talk' seems a bit too intent on TV.

June 19, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Funny how a cute little comedy like Phil Olson's "Crappie Talk" (pronounced "croppy") at Group Repertory Theatre, should start us thinking High Concept.

The show's flyer refers to it as "My Cousin Vinnie" meets "Lake Wobegon Days." But the program has its references wrong.

Instead, Olson has actually come up with a two-act pilot for a TV series. In High Conceptese, it's "Cheers" meets "WKRP in Cincinnati" meets "Newhart." Specifically, it's set in a bar in America's rural North that also houses a radio station. Oh, and throw in "Fargo," too, since "Crappie Talk" is set in Whitefish Bay, Minn., where everybody talks like Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson.

Olson has us thinking this way because, for all the play's good-natured ease, "Crappie Talk" has a fairly calculating heart. Thus, the neat yet ludicrous wrap-up and the nifty nuggets of wisdom that are TV sitcoms' bread and butter--that and the sense that nothing really awful is going to happen to these characters, despite some of their emotional complications. When a gun is drawn in this play, you can be sure it's unloaded.

Somewhere along the way, "Crappie Talk" slips from being a play into being a pilot, but that doesn't mean we don't chuckle at Olson's Far North drollness and hope that clueless Lars Knudsen (Olson), host of radio station KOLD's show on crappie fishing, wins the heart of Martha Bjorklund (Therese Lentz), who hosts the show's best-rated hour, "Book Talk."

In fact, Lars' happy ending--like all good pilots--does two things at once: It makes us glad for Lars and Martha, and provides the setup for the comedy series to come.

Lars can't buy a call or sponsor for his talk show--yet another area in which Martha is better than he is.

He may have lost his wife to cancer three years before, but Lars is hooked on Martha and, of course, he's the last to know. That's his charm. And Olson gives him the added problem of being a terrible on-air host.

He has another problem, and so does the show: Into town blows Brooklynite Sal Carducci (Robert Di Tillio), who has just bought KOLD and wants to make it seriously profitable. He makes Martha general manager, with power to fire anyone, including Lars, but Carducci has to deal with fiery, sexy ex-wife Donna (Jennifer Cohen), who is opening up her own hotel in town.

As the plot distracts us from the wry, innocent charms of the Whitefish locals, "Crappie Talk" loses its own charm and has to service an extremely hackneyed situation. Olson tries to explain why Donna, more New York than pizza, would come to the far Minnesota north, but it only makes us aware of the contrivances, when it could be so easy and natural.

Under the twin direction of Mareli Mitchel and Stephen R. Hudis, the cast gets into the dry sweetness of their roles. Olson, Lentz, Jack Goodman and Bethany Carpenter as the bar owners, and Vince Cefalu as the station's top sponsor, especially revel in the play's nice rural slowness.

It's when the show tries to go New York that the joy goes away.

BE THERE

"Crappie Talk," Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Indefinitely. $15. (818) 769-7529.

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