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Weekend Reviews | Theater

Humor, Sadness Drive Tale of One Family's Crisis

September 22, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Some teenage girls need a reality check. In "Good as New," the Peter Hedges play having its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, 16-year-old Maggie (Robin Mary Florence) worships dad, a free-speech advocate named Dennis (Stephen Rowe). In fact, Maggie is so perky and unabashedly adoring of Dennis that you may find yourself unkindly hoping he'll come crashing down from Maggie's pedestal.

On the other hand, Maggie is not so crazy about mom at the moment. A new driver, Maggie gives her mother a lift home from the hospital. Where she drove confidently with her father as passenger, Maggie is now skittish behind the wheel. Jan (Linda Gehringer) has just had a face lift, and Maggie cannot look at her.

"I'm disappointed," she tells her bruised and bandaged mother in a strict tone. Though it hurts to talk, Jan responds, "It's good to be disappointed. It's good practice." Maggie presses the point. "I want to be able to age. I want life to happen to me." Jan rolls her purple eyes, saying, "Guess what. You'll have that choice."

Hedges has a big reality check in store for Maggie. The playwright is also a novelist and screenwriter ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"). He knows how to surprise his characters along with his audience and to create wonderful, choppy dialogue that rides a modern seesaw of anxiety and repair.

In "Good as New," he delineates the moment when all of a family's deceptions and best intentions converge at near-disaster. Hedges examines the process by which an adoring child and doting parents come to see each another as flawed adults. And he exaggerates that process so that all the comedy and tragedy of the shift can be fully savored.

But as smart and funny as this play is, Hedges ensnares his characters in too many stretches of dialogue in which his voice turns from natural to forced, and the play itself idles in neutral when it should be rolling forward, particularly in the second act.

Director Martin Benson sets sparks flying in the best-written sections and gets especially solid performances from the women. Even under bandages, Gehringer shines as a woman attempting as best she can to keep her dignity at a time in life when she feels herself becoming invisible to men. Despite her aches and pains--to her body and her soul--Jan is a rugged and ebullient spirit, still trying to teach her daughter despite the bad example of her surgery. The point-counterpoint that goes on between Jan and Maggie is crackling and alive--you never hear a playwright trying to make a point, only two opposing characters, both of them equally articulate and equally passionate.

Under attack by her daughter and on painkillers, Jan makes a mistake. She tells Maggie that she believes Dennis is having an affair. This information sends the high-strung Maggie into overdrive. Hoping for reassurance, she tells her father, only to hear fresh dirt from him on her mother. And then she goes a little nuts.

Florence overplays Maggie's adorableness at the start, but she makes her initial Shirley Temple cuteness pay off in the end, as she unveils a girl who walks a thin line between high achiever and high neurotic. Maggie has always loved her parents for their honesty, and she childishly refuses to pay the price for that honesty without making everyone around her pay too. But then, she's still a child.

The blank in the equation is Dennis. Rowe seems to be flailing in the role; his Dennis appears too ineffectual to have earned his daughter's unreserved adoration or to provoke his wife's extreme anger.

Truth and intimacy are a tricky couple. Good parents can practice bad parenting. Hedges examines these ideas entertainingly, except when he overstates them. When Jan says, "The truth is slippery and it burns," for instance, or when Dennis goes on a riff about memory and mistakes, these are passages in which a playwright imposes his themes too prominently on his characters' thoughts. This is when the playwright's slip is showing.

Still, it's easy to feel for Jan, the aging activist, who looks at Nike Town and wonders whether all of her youthful idealism made any difference to society. She still believes that the best way to make a better world is by growing better children, and yet Maggie is beginning to look like a basket case. With so much kindness and affection and love in it, how can this family be falling apart?

Jan and Dennis work out too much of their marital turmoil in front of their daughter. Their mistakes climax in a scuffle that is as unbelievable textually as it is physically. If this scuffle is deeply disappointing, it is because Hedges has created so much that is good. In that way, he's a little like Jan and Dennis.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Good as New," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 19. $18-$41. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Robin Mary Florence: Maggie

Stephen Rowe: Dennis

Linda Gehringer: Jan

A South Coast Repertory production. By Peter Hedges. Directed by Martin Benson. Sets Tony Fanning. Costumes Susan Denison Geller. Lights York Kennedy. Sound B.C. Keller. Original music David Van Tieghem. Production manager Michael Mora. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.

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