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A Need for Subtlety

Too many spoken feelings detract from the strong acting, directing of 'P.O.W.'

June 26, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Claudia Adams' new play, "P.O.W. (Police Officers' Wives)," at the Ventura Court Theatre, is a textbook example of the messenger not quite trusting the message.

Rather than rely on showing us the dramatic--and tragic--logic of a wife allowing herself to become trapped inside a vicious police "code of secrecy" that extends to the bedroom, Adams persists in telling us what her characters are thinking and feeling.

The result is a remarkably flat rendering of what should be chastening, savage and powerful--not unlike the kind of theater that director John DiFusco has created since his seminal Vietnam play, "Tracers." Always among the most physical of directors, with an exceptional understanding of the military mind and the weirdness that can be produced by a fraternity of men, DiFusco would seem to be a natural for "P.O.W.," from its punning title to its period setting of the 1970s to its depiction of a human sickness that eats away at some police officers.

But this is clearly the case of a bold director undone by a script muddling its way through.

By turns manipulative, Method-y, obvious and genuinely funny, Adams' story soon loses its focus on the souring marriage of cop Cas (Ben Reed) and wife Val (Ellen Wheeler) to take in side stories involving the abusive marriage of thuggish cop Franko (Richard Chaves, a DiFusco vet in a stunning, raw performance) to wife Felice (Carol Stanzione, alternating with Eileen Dietz-Albany); loopy hookers Lynn and Anna (scene stealers Samantha Kaye and Nina Minton); Val's friendly, stoned teen neighbor, Jake (Sean Blodgett, alternating with Dublin James); and Cas' black partner, Rod (Kevin Williams) and his concerned young bride, Beverly (Lira Angel).

Adams hasn't figured out a way for these supporting folks to feed into the main Cas-Val drama without subsuming it, just as she hasn't figured out a way to avoid a falsely contrived ending that's set up at least an hour before it happens.

Despite some acute casting and performances, the play's habit of having characters directly address us with their problems--problems that could easily be dramatized--pushes us away rather than draws us in. Designer Frank Ashmore and decorators Quinn Monahan and Gail Jordan manage the enormously tough trick of re-creating the '70s on stage, but neither the dialogue nor the situations indicate that this is a '70s story.

* "P.O.W. (Police Officers' Wives)," Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 13. (Dark July 4.) $15-$18. (818) 953-9993 or (213) 466-1767.

Rare Revival: One show that's very much of the '70s is the exceptional yet rarely revived Stephen Schwartz musical, "Pippin." A companion at Burbank Civic Light Opera's Starlight Bowl production Saturday was reminded of "Laugh-In," and there's no question that Schwartz's score and book writer Roger O. Hirson's picaresque tale of Pepin--nee Pippin, son of Charlemagne--feels hatched just after the Summer of Love.

But what a rich, varied, enduring score, abetted by a Bob Fosse choreographic design that choreographer Lucy Record remains close to in director Nick DeGruccio's staging. DeGruccio can't overcome the Starlight's impossible distance between the stage and audience, but he has tweaked Pippin's wild adventures from war to peace with interesting touches.

* "Pippin," Starlight Bowl, 1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank. 8:15 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Ends Sunday. $18. (818) 380-3444.

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