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An Erotic, Engaging 'Hello'

Theater review: Michael John LaChiusa's musical dramatizes the search for love through characters' intertwining sex lives.

April 21, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In the sum of a life, how important are our most transient erotic adventures? What do they mean? Why is the search for sexual gratification almost always haunted by the search for love, or something else unnamed? Michael John LaChiusa, a composer-lyricist who has rightly been called one of the best hopes for the American musical, has written a fascinating treatise on the subject, a song cycle titled "Hello Again."

When it had its premiere at New York's Lincoln Center in 1994, this beguiling but odd show was hard to connect with emotionally. Four years later, under the intensely focused direction of Daniel Henning, whose Blank Theatre Company is fast becoming a jewel among small theaters in Los Angeles, "Hello Again" seems clearer and more engaging.

Henning's ability to attract experienced stage actors to his tiny theater pays off big time in "Hello Again." Showing off crisp timing and rich emotional investment, the cast performs without microphones, creating an intimate mood that is exactly right for a show about the most intimate of acts. The unamplified human voice--this is an all too rare treat today, when even the smallest, most acoustically perfect theaters on Broadway use amplification.

Riffing on Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play "Reigen" (better known as the Max Ophuls film "La Ronde"), "Hello Again" passes the baton of erotic love from one virtually unrelated scene to the next. To further disjoint the tale, the show skips willy-nilly around the 20th century, so that a woman trysting to a Fred Astaire movie in one scene is asked by her husband to pack for his trip on the Titanic in the next. The story begins with a prostitute and a soldier in a park, then follows the soldier as he seduces a reluctant nurse, then follows the now enthusiastic nurse into the arms of a student, and so on, for 10 distinctly different vignettes.

Usually, a phrase is passed along from the previous lover to the next one. Phrases are all these lovers pass along--there is no hint of disease, even as the story winds into the '70s and a homosexual pickup in a disco. LaChiusa is not interested in physical consequence; he's interested in longing, in who we are before and after a sexual encounter, and, elliptically, in how every erotic experience becomes a part of our lives forever.

In the final scenes, the musical comes full circle. The last man in the chain, a senator as it happens, meets again the mysterious prostitute from the beginning, a woman whose uniquely unselfish ideas about giving set her apart from every other troubled, questing soul in the show.

The most captivating in an evening of captivating performers is Susan Egan, Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" and more recently a high point of the lame "Triumph of Love" on Broadway. Here she plays a young wife who engages in a tryst with a student while watching "Follow the Fleet." With the help of Larry Sullivan Jr. as the college boy, Egan brilliantly fields a comic scene involving impotence, oral sex and a hat with a long feather in it (all of Van Broughton Ramsey's costumes are a treat). In the following scene, she vacates the bed where her husband is making love to her to sing the show's most arresting number, a song about a brief rendezvous in a park. For some ineffable reason, this one affair stands out to her as her most meaningful encounter. The lyric has an apocalyptic feel, as if sung at the end of a life: "I can't remember my husband's name / I can't remember my lover's name / But I can remember what would have been / It has a name. . . ."

The characters in "Hello Again" never find what we might call a spiritual kind of love, but their longings rise above the merely carnal. The actors hit every joke in the often funny text and then some (by way of a few added video moments), but the musical tilts away from its jokes and toward the profound, as it documents what is always just out of reach. It takes human yearning as its subject.

The cast is strong, especially Marcia Strassman as the mysterious prostitute, Steve Girardi as the lustful soldier and Jennifer Leigh Warren as the nurse. Paul Anthony Stewart is wonderfully antsy as an egotistical playwright-screenwriter. Michael Halpin is a stuffy businessman and Jay Michael Ferguson just manages to keep shy of cliche as a sexy young hustler. Alyson Reed does well with barely concealed desperation as an actress trying to keep hold of a senator.

The last and most layered song is beautifully handled by a contemplative Richard Kline, who plays the senator. "The bed was not my own," he muses, describing a dream of his erotic life. "What I'd never found in any lover was there. . . ." In its final, haunting moment, "Hello Again" suggests that our longings are always with us, those of our present as well as our past. In the show, as in life, it's both surprising and expected when the past comes around to say hello again.

* "Hello Again," Blank Theatre Company at 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m. Ends June 7. $27-$30. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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