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Stage Light

April 29, 1999|ROBERT KOEHLER

Writer-director Ted Lange's new comedy at the Whitefire Theatre, "Weird Willie and the B.L.C.," is as smooth, sweet and unsubstantial as a glass of lemonade.

It both is and isn't akin to the kinds of plays once produced by the late C. Bernard "Jack" Jackson and his Inner City Cultural Center, to whom Lange dedicates this work.

Much less serious than many of the comedies Jackson oversaw, "Willie" is also written with Jackson's acute awareness of African American theater-making, L.A. style, and invested with encyclopedic references to past black artists.

It is also a more personal and human-scaled comedy than Lange's previous romp at the Whitefire, "Four Queens-No Trump." Although that piece seemed to be working overtime pitching itself as a TV sitcom pilot, "Willie" is happy to be generally amusing, as thoroughly focused as an Eric Rohmer movie on the banter and tos-and-fros between a man and a woman.

And like Rohmer, Lange isn't terribly interested in building up big dramatic tensions or forcing us to laugh our heads off. He's more focused on letting us watch two smart, attractive people draw each other in, fall in love and run into some bumps in the road. The bumps in "Willie," though, are never enough to send anyone into the ditch.

"Willie" finds William Turner (Ralph Harris, alternating with Lange) directing a new play about jazz "outlaws" at an unnamed downtown Los Angeles theater run by a white producer. William interviews choreographer Jean Wilson (Karen Dyer, alternating with Brook Parker) for a post in the production.

Maybe it's the way Jean rubs her legs with lotion, but William is quickly finding his libido getting in the way of his professionalism.

Even his supposed vow of celibacy that he always makes during rehearsals is now under threat from the "B.L.C.," or big-legged choreographer.

Lange can't resist laying on the sex-comedy stuff, yet the interchanges between William and Jean remain between adults and serious artists.

It's 1972, Curtis Mayfield is popular (and on the sound system during the show's wonderful interlude) and women such as Jean are finding their voices as artists in their own right. William not only is open to this, but he is sort of a catalyst for Jean's rediscovery of ballet, which she had dismissed as "dead."

The proceedings are smoothest through the plentiful lovers' talk, although Lange hasn't yet figured out a credible way to create some kind of conflict, which emerges rather late and seems half-hearted.

Harris and Dyer produce chemistry that comes only from people this sharp-witted and good-looking, and we just want them to love each other in interesting ways.

Both resist playing broadly, even when the material urges it, and Dyer's statuesque confidence cleanly plays opposite Harris' quiet assuredness. Unlike the vast majority of theater characters, William and Jean are a twosome we would actually like to meet--or at least find out what they're doing 27 years later.

"Weird Willie and the B.L.C.," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 16. $20. (818) 993-5795. Running time: 2 hours.

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