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Stage Light

Comedy Misses Mark

August 12, 1999|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Hard Road Home" is playwright (and former Los Angeles Herald Examiner and L.A. Weekly theater critic) Dan Duling's effort to continue the Shakespearean tradition of creating impossible conflicts between characters before bringing them together for a final reconciliation.

It's a fine tradition, but Duling's play only serves to demonstrate why it is a difficult concept to make convincing for modern audiences.

Those at the Sanford Meisner Center may feel they're seeing something less out of Shakespeare and more out of Sam Shepard, but with the edges, absurdity and poetic passions worn away. There's a dusty motel and battling married couple right out of Shepard's "Fool for Love," a lonely guy traveling the desert highways out of countless Shepard dramas, and nutty working stiffs that recall Shepard's early works like "Angel City."

Indeed, the plot of "Hard Road Home" has lonely motel owner Shirley (Donna Weathers) invite aluminum siding salesman Cal (Brian Vermeire) to her bed, only to have her long-absent, roving husband, Jake (John Zipperer), barge in on her. This closely resembles--with obvious character differences aside--the plot line of "Fool for Love." However, Shepard is a writer who allows his subconscious to run rampant while crafting a raucous comedy, while Duling seems unsure of both his characters and his comic instincts.

The heart of the problem is Shirley, an almost impossible character to believe or grasp. She once married Jake, knowing she was unable to show affection. This problem didn't improve over time, understandably driving Jake away, which results in him finding temporary love on the road.

The play takes place on the night of the second anniversary of Jake's departure, when Shirley nabs the traveling salesman and gets him into bad for bad sex. Even worse, Shirley is so afraid of her emotions that she stays numbly silent. Then, when she gives way, she can't stop crying.

Shirley is the worst kind of cartoon: Shallow and uninteresting but ever-present and inscrutable. She's the kind of female cartoon that perhaps only a male playwright could draw, an adult woman in pain reduced to a zygotestereotype.

Jake's not much better, a seeming idiot for love who inexplicably returns home after missing her.

More impossible, though, is Duling's contrived story that piles up coincidences until you realize there's no real storytelling going on at all. Even Shepard at his wildest presents a story that takes us somewhere.

Take away Cal just happening to drop by the motel as the only guest or Jake just happening to return home this night or Shirley behaving like a fruitcake, and you have no play.

From a dubious Act I, Act II goes nowhere but down. Cal is reduced to spastic comedy while being locked in a car trunk, while Shirley and Jake undergo a protracted, unbelievable reconciliation. And this after Jake slugs her in the mouth at the end of Act I.Duling's so unsure where he's going in "Home" that his fight feels rigged almost from the start. Under Kelly Nelson's direction, Weathers and Zipperer don't embolden the contrivances with something fresh and fierce. Then again it's hard to think of any actors who could.

BE THERE

"Hard Road Home," Sanford Meisner Center, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 29. $10. (818) 509-9651. Running time: 2 hours.

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