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A Simple-Minded but Sweet 'Savage'

April 23, 1999|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY

Mrs. Ethel Savage, an eccentric but lovable millionaire, winds up incarcerated in an elite mental institution by three scheming stepchildren determined to gain control of her fortune. There, among a bevy of endearing lunatics, Mrs. Savage finds true acceptance--and learns that sometimes madness is relative.

Written and set in the 1950s, John Patrick's "The Curious Savage," at Actors Co-op, would have us swallow the lumpy chestnut that the mentally ill can be simply adorable.

And, in Bonnie Hellman's impressive staging--they are. The patients in "Savage" are as cuddly as the teddy bear that Mrs. Savage (Janet Raycraft) carries everywhere. Yet, while the bear yields up the secret at its core, the characters in Patrick's simplistic and predictable comedy are devoid of any psychic center, their mental maladies a cutesy device that strikes a jarring note on the political correctness scale. The set by Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer of Sets to Go, while handsomely detailed, is equally farfetched. More a bed-and-breakfast than an asylum, it looks like a getaway for the fashionably deranged.

Just when you're on the point of becoming exasperated at the shallowness of it all, you're hooked by the production's essential sweetness, not to mention an unexpectedly melancholic ending. It's a bittersweet coda that makes us suspend our disbelief, despite ourselves.

*

* "The Curious Savage," Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 9. $17. (323) 462-8460. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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