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'Monogamist' Finds the Tone

Theater Review: Christopher Kyle's 1995 play puts some new twists on familiar roundelays.

May 22, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Some comedies are line-to-line funny; some are tone-funny. (And some are unfunny. No, really! Some are!) With Christopher Kyle's 1995 play "The Monogamist," now receiving an entertaining if over-earnest Los Angeles debut courtesy of the Relentless Theatre Company, the payoff is mostly--and deftly--in the tone.

Kyle writes quick, deadpan exchanges, and without merely lazing around in irony and caricature, he deploys both well. He also stays true to his pathetic protagonist, Dennis, an "underground poet" (played by Michael Mantell) who writes a volume about monogamy, only to find his feminist literature professor wife, Susan (Lisa Pescia), in bed with one of her college students (Brent Roam). Dennis embarks on a project--a search for personal meaning, which involves tape-recording virtually every conversation he has. You never know when you'll find some nugget, he figures. He's looking for the kind of "spontaneity" you can only get via electronics.

The play begins with Dennis being interviewed on a Manhattan cable-access station by his former teaching assistant, Jasmine (Rachel Malkenhorst), now a self-styled literary critic. Her on-air review of Dennis' book on monogamy: "It was shattering. I was shattered."

So is Dennis, after learning the tough way of his wife's infidelity. At a poetry bar Dennis picks up a young thing named Sky (Wendy Johnson) whose political convictions are nil. Kyle's play is set in 1991, and the play sets up the younger characters as a handy, callow contrast to the 40ish Dennis and Susan who met, we learn, licking envelopes for the Jimmy Carter campaign.

Despite a generally warm critical reception in New York, "The Monogamist" struck some as chilly and thin, setting up easy targets (postmodern poseurs; former activists, now de-activated) for easy jokes. It is facile. Yet Kyle doesn't head straight to the gag. The sexual roundelay depicted here isn't what you'd call brand-new, but it's given some amusing, sidewinding variations. At the end you see a schmo, the newly christened poet-videographer Dennis, watching a video of himself and his soon-to-be-ex wife reenacting their first romantic encounter. It's a lonesome image, "sex, lies and videotape" without the happy ending.

Director Olivia Honegger stages the play on scenic designer Karyl Newman's vast multi-locale setting--living room up top, cafe table down front, five video screens dotting the landscape. The physical space looks right, until you realize you're in for several longish scene changes. (One of the usual advantages of a collage-style unit set is that you don't have to move stuff around and interrupt the flow.)

Clearly Mantell, who looks a lot like Steven Spielberg, is a good actor, and his fellow performers hold their own. What's missing overall is that elusive combination of the deadpan and the dead serious. Mantell's diffidence and Pescia's sincerity are nicely sustained, but limiting. The production maintains a casual and naturalistic feeling, which is a start, but Kyle's exchanges are a touch more stylized than that.

Johnson's Sky--up for anything, any time--seems most at home with the material. She's doing a lot, too much sometimes. Above the neck there's a lot of activity every second with this performance. Yet Johnson gets her laughs while finding the ache in the character. The play has one too. It's what makes the comedy--the tone--interesting.

* "The Monogamist," the Relentless Theatre Company, Gascon Center Theatre, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 19. $15. (310) 289-2287. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Rachel Malkenhorst: Jasmine Stone

Michael Mantell: Dennis Jensen

Lisa Pescia: Susan Barry

Brent Roam: Tim Hapgood

Wendy Johnson: Sky Hickock

Written by Christopher Kyle. Directed by Olivia Honegger. Set by Karyl Newman. Lighting by David Lee Cuthbert. Sound by Brian Thornell. Video by Sam Boyer and Louis Scirotta. Stage manager Kappy Kilburn.

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