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Theater | Theater Review

Sulking by the Sea

March 23, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It should be obvious from the title that "Brighton Beach Scumbags" author Steven Berkoff's stance toward his working-class Cockney protagonists isn't exactly neutral. Nevertheless, in its U.S. premiere at the Lillian Theatre's Elephant Space, this short, savage satirical portrait brilliantly skewers the narrow-minded bigotry that condemns these all-too-typical specimens to perpetual frustration and disappointment.

Trying to enjoy an idyllic seaside sojourn, two couples find their excursion soured by messy realities, chiefly involving the proximity of blacks, homosexuals and their own marital tensions. In bringing them hilariously to life, the entire ensemble is tight as a drum--from impeccable accents to Melissa Orndroff's wittily tacky costumes.

Nevertheless, the primary focus is on the unabashedly belligerent Derek (Ron Bottitta), an auto assembly-line worker with an RV-sized chip on his shoulder. Sporting a T-shirt patriotically hyping the 20-odd-year-old British triumph in the Falklands--atop an absurdly tight pair of briefs--Derek clings like a latter-day Archie Bunker to complacent prejudices of the past.

Bottitta is unfailingly superb in the role. When he's not snarling at the stupidity of the outside world, Derek's favorite pastime is bickering with his equally unpleasant wife, Dinah (Jacquie Barnbrook), who opens the piece with a shrill demand to know what everyone wants on "yer bleedin' hamburgers."

*

After she trounces back with their food, Derek's mounting irritation impels him to toss it in the sand, only to pick it up, brush off the sand and devour it with sulking chomps--the perfect visual metaphor for the way Derek keeps shooting himself in the foot with his temper.

Adding to Derek and Dinah's discomfort was an earlier inadvertent venture into a nearby gay bar on the way to meeting their fellow "scumbags," Doreen (Emma Stafford) and Dave (Brye Cooper). Still smarting from the stares they drew, Derek launches into a predictable litany of homophobic invectives, which only intensify when two of the bar's denizens (Field Blauvelt, Nathan Hill) happen by--enraged by misperceptions of their own.

The antagonism of all three couples is rooted as much in cluelessness as hostility, exemplified in Doreen's well-meaning but relentlessly rude comments about Dinah's weight problem ("It's glands, ya see") or the presence of blacks and Pakistanis ("I don't understand why they lie there like they want to get a tan"). The only limitation is the play's single-note focus, but Berkoff's elegant script makes its argument with wit and efficiency--there isn't a wasted word or moment in Paul Quinn's razor-sharp staging. Short, to the point, and hilariously effective, there's nothing not to like here except the scumbags themselves--exactly as intended.

BE THERE

"Brighton Beach Scumbags," Lillian Theatre, Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 23. $15. (323) 692-7185. Running time: 1 hour.

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