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'The Last Laugh' Finds Humor in TV's Trenches

October 13, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY

"The Last Laugh" at the Write Act Theatre, a fledgling company housed at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church complex in Hollywood, is an exercise in style over substance.

The play was co-penned by veteran sitcom writers Mady Julian and Arnold Margolin (Margolin is best known as the co-creator of "Love, American Style.") Although both writers have weathered their years in the Hollywood trenches with their senses of humor triumphantly intact, their meager plot might have been better contained within a brisk 22-minutes-plus-commercials format.

The play is set--where else?--in the office of Jay Coffman (Brad Parker), the executive producer of the episodic television show "Crime of Your Life," starring the lavishly egotistical Tony Clarke (Bill Rutkoski). Tony's just got word that he'll get his new liver tomorrow, so the taping of the final segment of the season has been pushed up until tonight. Fed up with their temperamental star, Jay and his entire writing staff are hoping to decamp immediately thereafter to staff the show's spinoff. However, their getaway scheme is rudely disrupted when Jay finds a young gofer murdered in his closet.

The first act is largely taken up with the shocked reactions of the staff writers who discover the body, then decide to join Jay's conspiracy of silence so they can escape the monstrous Tony's thrall. The plot is a stretch by any standards, but it provides for the exchange of some sizzling one-liners and mordant mots about the general insanity of the TV industry.

Director James Luzar sets the pell-mell pace for this comic romp, and the likable cast charges through the proceedings like a herd of starving rhinos that have just gotten wind of a produce market. Occasionally, the momentum becomes so frenetic that line flubs result. But if a few laughs are blown, more survive the onslaught, particularly when the hilarious Rutkoski takes the stage.

* "The Last Laugh," Write Act Theatre, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, 6128 Yucca St., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 18. $15-$18. (323) 860-8894. Running time: 2 hours.

Drifters, Losers in 'Dominant 7th'

The Zoo District's production of Paula Killen's "The Dominant 7th" at the Lillian Theater is an erratic, challenging, raw-edged and diverting play that examines the complicated relationships among a group of losers, boozers, hard cases and dreamers at sundry crossroads in their lives.

The action is set in 1979, an era of dwindling social activism and rising discontent. The social safety net has shredded, but drifters in this Chicago neighborhood gravitate to Bob's Dark Heart, a seedy bar run by Hollis (Bernadette Sullivan), a spunky gal with a big heart whose man is MIA in Nam.

The wounded birds who have tumbled into Hollis' nest include Royanne (Josette DiCarlo), a promiscuous toughie with a murky past; Ricky (Brett Paesel), a tremulous wannabe chanteuse; David (Robert Maffia), Ricky's conniving, drug-addicted husband; and Discharge (Loren Lazerine), a Nam vet prone to agonizing flashbacks. When Hollis' lover, Jack (never seen), is discovered dead in the washroom, accusations and confessions quickly follow.

Nano (Jonathan Goldstein), the bar's pianist, functions as the omniscient narrator of the piece. The action is nonlinear, with each actor taking the spotlight for a revelatory monologue. The tone ranges from the lyrical (Discharge's lovely, folkloric exchange with a distant moon goddess) to the soap operatic (Hollis' hyper-emotional scene with Discharge) to the self-consciously cutesy (Ricky's arch monologue involving various fluffy stuffed animals.)

The choppiness is all part of the piece's fascination, but Killen sometimes struggles too hard for effect, as is particularly evident in David's mock poetry diatribe. Also, certain key points in her story, such as Royanne's real reasons for withholding some shocking information from her best friend Hollis, seem contrived.

But if Killen's play tends toward the scattershot, Theresa Larkin's staging is on target throughout, as are the actors' rigorously measured performances. Michael Franco's distinctive lighting is essential to the ambience of this flawed but engaging effort, which is at least as entertaining as it is baffling.

* "The Dominant 7th," Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 8. $12. (323) 769-5674. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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