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THEATER | REVIEW

Dance of Grief

Clever writing and strong direction overcome oddities in '70s drama about disco and death.

September 10, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Aaah! Capella Theatre in North Hollywood consists of an assortment of old sofas and odd chairs lined up in front a slightly raised stage. Yet "Deep in the Soul of Disco," playing here through Oct. 8, makes the seats--some of which were no doubt around during the disco years--feel appropriate.

Set in Sunnyside, Queens, in 1978, Dee Burton's play combines the unlikely topics of dancing and death. In the opening scene, Eddie (Jordan Harrelson) mourns the death of his beloved mother. His priest, Father Taylor (Michael Dempsey) offers a strange form of solace: a card for five free disco lessons.

But learning the three-count hustle isn't enough to clear Eddie's head, still full of rocks, as he says, after his mother's death. In particular, he can't remember the last words his mother spoke to him.

Rough coming out of the blocks, "Deep in the Soul" eventually finds its rhythm, helped in large part by superior supporting performances by Dempsey and Cynthia Dane.

Harrelson, however, although he has that perfect disco look, never seems sure of his footing. Aside from noticeable stumbles, his performance is a collection of mannerisms without a center. Eddie seems too much a rube in the play's serious moments and not dark enough in its comic ones.

Dempsey, by contrast, creates a full character in his handful of scenes. His Irish Catholic priest has a fondness for disco--demonstrated ably during his "Macho Man" routine--but also a strong love for his parishioners, including Eddie. He carries the scenes where the play works best, nimbly hopping back and forth over the line dividing the tragic and the funny.

As Eddie's love interest, Cheryl, Dane leans toward the comic. Just when her coy and bashful routine starts to wear thin, she launches into a terribly funny recitation of her poems--emphasis on the terrible.

Under Lauren Cloud's direction, "Deep in the Soul" veers away from being trite or predictable. Burton's writing has some clever moments but Cloud keeps the story in the forefront. Everything else--poor lighting, bad sight lines--falls away. Even the strange couches.

BE THERE

"Deep in the Soul of Disco" at the Aaah! Capella Theatre, 5907 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. No show tonight. $12. (323) 464-5946.

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