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Fit to Be Tried?

Intriguing courtroom drama 'Nuts' features some sharp performances.

June 08, 2000|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's an unusual court case when the defendant is fighting for the right to be tried, but that's the intriguing premise of "Nuts," the sharp courtroom drama now being performed by the Oxnard-based Elite Theatre Company, directed by Patricia Lynn-Strickland.

The setting is New York's Bellevue Hospital. If Claudia Draper is ruled mentally fit to stand trial, she'll be tried for manslaughter. While "insanity" is a common enough defense (on TV, at least), Claudia wants none of it: She's completely sane, she argues, despite the diagnosis of Bellevue staff psychiatrist Herbert Rosenthal.

To continue the case's own oddity, Assistant Dist. Atty. Franklin MacMillan is arguing that Claudia shouldn't be tried; if her court-appointed attorney, Aaron Levinsky, wins, she'll be declared sane and put on trial.

The play, by longtime New York Post reporter Tom Topor, was made into a rather overblown 1987 film starring Barbra Streisand as the (need we say?) feisty Claudia. Topor's other writing credits include the screenplays for the feature film "The Accused" and this year's JonBenet Ramsey TV movie, "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town."

This being a courtroom drama, there are attorneys and witnesses as well as the accused, which gives plenty of opportunity for juicy speeches. Topor doesn't neglect his duty in that respect, and actors Alan Ducker and Virginia Streat (as Claudia's parents) and Michelle Wagner, particularly, take full and capable advantage of the opportunity. (Ron Rezac will fill in for Ducker from June 30 through July 2.)

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Andy Brasted's Dr. Rosenthal won't be winning any awards from the American Psychiatric Assn.; and Ed Buckle as MacMillan and Tom Bird as Levinsky, Marion Laurance Allen as the judge, Tom Higgins as the bailiff and Amber Landis as the recorder all perform convincingly as officers of the court.

The crime of which Claudia is accused has sexual ramifications, and the language gets rather specific at times. Keep that in mind before loading the kids (or your sensitive Aunt Sally and Uncle Sam) into the car for an evening at the theater.

For everybody else, it should prove to be pretty fascinating stuff.

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Ed Buckle has a jump on the part of prosecutor MacMillan: a 20-year career as a lawyer and occasional pro tem judge, though specializing in civil cases rather than criminal matters like the trial in "Nuts."

So how accurate is the law displayed onstage at the Elite? "I think," he said recently, "the thing you have to first recognize is that you couldn't get away with any of this in court; there's no judge I know who would allow this type of behavior in a courtroom. Courtrooms typically are very boring places. But people are so used to TV, they think 'The Practice' is the way people practice law."

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Buckle and his wife, Virginia Streat, have been together since 1983. But although she has a long reputation as one of the county's more accomplished actors, it took her quite a while to get her husband onstage.

"She was in the Ojai Shakespeare Festival's [1991] production of 'The Merchant of Venice,' and the actor playing Graziano dropped out. And even though I'd never acted before--though I'd gone to all her shows--she asked me to do it."

The law course he was teaching at Oxnard College for many years kept him from the boards except during summer, but more recently he has appeared as a jury foreman in "12 Angry Men" and in the non-courtroom drama "The Diary of Anne Frank." Most of his parts, he says, were--as in "The Merchant of Venice"--filling in when someone else dropped out ("I feel like a relief pitcher"), although he tried out specifically for "Nuts" so he could work with his wife.

One last thing: Without giving away any of the story, would Buckle--the longtime lawyer, law professor and occasional judge--agree with the judge's verdict in the play? Without a second's hesitation, he replies, "Oh, yes."

DETAILS

"Nuts" continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 9 at the Petit Playhouse, 730 South B St. in Oxnard's Hritage Square. Tickets to all performances are $12; seniors $10. The program is not recommended for children or for adults who might be upset by graphic language. For reservations (recommended) or further information, call 483-5118.

Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net

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