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'Perfect Ganesh': McNally on a Budget

Theater | STAGE REVIEW

Playwright's work at a small, sparse venue has moments of eloquence and power.

July 23, 1998|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Connecticut matrons tour India together. They come with personal concerns and distressing memories that even their guardian angel--the Hindu god Ganesha, queller of obstacles--cannot quell. Still, in one of the women's souvenir shopping, she searches for a flawless Ganesha figurine--"A Perfect Ganesh."

Terrence McNally's 1993 play of that title, which is finally getting its first L.A. production at the Odyssey Theatre, has a more original premise than most of his scripts. It also has moments of eloquence and power--plus a few extraneous narrative elements, small cliches and pointless jokes.

McNally's plays usually are introduced to L.A. under the auspices of the Center Theatre Group, where they are presented with much bigger budgets than here. At the Odyssey, the design elements seem muffled and sparse. The stage is grayish instead of the "blinding white" recommended in the script, which also mentions other elements missing here--a gauze curtain, a blue bolt of fabric representing a river.

Anna Wyckoff's costume for Ganesha (Bernard White) fails to make him look as fat as he's reputed to be. Also, this Ganesha seldom wears his elephant mask. In the original production and in the script, Ganesha doffed his mask only at the end, when he finally unveiled the man beneath it. That dramatic gesture is lost here.

However, director Allan Miller did attract some first-rate actors to his "Ganesh," led by Lois Nettleton and Louise Sorel as the two Connecticut Yankees.

Nettleton plays the transparent Katharine, tremulously eager for new adventures but still despairing over the gay-bashing murder of her son three years ago and her own inability to accept him as he was. Katharine has lifted herself up by the bootstraps, socially andmaterially, and is now determined to lift herself out of her emotional low. Nettleton expresses her fragility and her gallantry with equal success.

Margaret is a more sardonic character. She isn't as candid about her personal problems, too many of which edge the play toward the trite. But Sorel cuts a commanding figure onstage, and she also knows how to convey the consternation of a woman whose sense of command is beginning to falter.

White is an appealing Ganesha, who assumes many guises during the evening. An even greater chameleonic challenge is posed to Christopher Randolph, who plays a variety of men both living and dead, American and Indian, including the women's husbands and sons, fellow travelers and guides. Randolph looks too unyieldingly like a young leading man to cover so much territory, but he handles some of the roles very well.

Maria Bodmann designed some engaging, if rudimentary shadow puppets.

*

* "A Perfect Ganesh," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except Aug. 2, Aug. 30, 2 p.m. only. Ends Aug. 30. $18.50-$22.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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