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THEATER | REVIEW

It's No 'Godot'

Political 'Umbrella' ensconces itself in theater of the surreal.

June 04, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voter turnouts are near all-time lows. Disinterest rules, with apathy its only challenger. And no wonder, if "Uncle Sam's Umbrella" represents the level of political discourse in America today.

Shirley Hillard's new comedy, now running at the Two Roads Theatre, revolves around a homeless man's run-in with Uncle Sam. That's right, the Uncle Sam, who wears stars and stripes and says things like, "I am the government."

Sam (James Luisi) spends the first act duping Arnold (John LaMotta) out of his meager savings, his food and finally the shirt off his back. After running off, Sam returns in Act II in tatters, having been mauled by the American Public. What does he do to appease these citizens? He gets a big bag of cash and hurls bundles of bills at them.

Whether you agree the government steals from you or throws money at you, the approach on these points is not exactly subtle. The comedy is drawn from jokes like this: Arnold cuts himself and asks Uncle Sam for help. Sam replies, "Have you got insurance?"

But what to make of the little blue umbrella that Sam insists protects him from the invisible particles falling from the sky? That the government wants to protect only itself?

"Uncle Sam's Umbrella" is hardly the heir to the theater of the absurd that it wants to be. As an allegory, it manages to be too simple and too esoteric. Either way it's ineffectual, a sort of "Waiting for Godot" sapped of its wit and depth.

It's a pity, too, because, as Arnold, LaMotta has undeniable charm. His character is a man of simple tastes and extremely humble means: He passes his days in a stadium grandstand, watching the sprinklers and the marching band practice. His lines are full of simple-minded opinions that come across as common sense. It is to LaMotta's credit that Arnold doesn't come off as a complete rube.

James Luisi has the less pleasant task of representing all that's despicable about the United States. He doesn't seem as natural as LaMotta, but, then, his character is the embodiment of a political system, inconsistent and opportunist.

Allison Bergman's direction consists of moving the two men up and down the bleachers, though she manages to keep interest high enough that one hopes something might come of all this at the end.

It doesn't. Instead, in the final scene, the ridiculous stretches into the surreal. Whatever meaning might have been culled from "Uncle Sam's Umbrella" is blown about the stage like a deflating balloon. And then it dissipates, like so much other political hot air.

BE THERE

"Uncle Sam's Umbrella" at the Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 28. $15. (818) 766-9381. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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