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Deadpanning for Gold

Dramatic actress Glenne Headly shows her comic mettle in 'Detachments,' a play with dry tones. Laraine Newman's wit also shines. Theater Review

September 21, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

And now, an ode to Glenne Headly.

At present the alum of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater is at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood, making the play "Detachments" well worth a look. Though her dramatic chops are half the reason she excels in comedy, in pure comic terms Headly's an anti-diva. She is no maximalist. She's Count Basie, as opposed to Ferrante and Teicher.

She can deadpan a flop into a chair--a pause, even--not to mention a line reading. Her height (considerable) and voice (suggesting every age at once) add up to a strong and idiosyncratic combination straight off. Add an instinct for quizzical, skeptical timing, plus a knack for revealing the heartache behind the shrug behind the smile--she even got Warren Beatty to loosen up in "Dick Tracy"--and you have a stealth performer, whatever the material.

"Detachments" does the job, at least for about an act and a half.

Writer-director Colleen Dodson-Baker's heroine is Ellen (Headly), an actress pleasantly mired in an eight-year relationship with an actor, Garry (Albie Selznick). She has begun "thinking about thinking about trying to get pregnant," though Garry has commitment issues, abandonment issues, maturity issues, issue issues.

While she's out of town on a solo performance gig, the retina in one of Ellen's eyes partially detaches. Thus begins a series of medical indignities, running on a parallel line with a relationship heading south, brought on by Garry's infidelity. Friends rally around Ellen. A quasi-mystical Hungarian (Laraine Newman) pops in and out of Ellen's life, dropping bits of advice.

Premiering in Chicago in 1996, Dodson-Baker's play has a neat sense of rhythm and structure; the playwright hurls her characters from one setting to another. The banter's quick and often witty. Even with the revisions since its '96 premiere, though, "Detachments" has its over-familiar aspects: The ironic-antic tone in many sequences (the lamest of which is an operating-room fantasy played as a game show) feels sort of easy. So does Garry, an immature write-off as written, and here, as acted.

*

These and other problems aside--Act 2, focusing on Ellen's recovery, creaks and sputters--"Detachments" at least has a comic voice to call its own. Dodson-Baker has a dry way with running gags; in one scene, a series of medics bustles into an examination room asking Ellen if she's allergic to any medications. The variations Headly pulls on a simple repeated phrase ("Not that I know of") bring down the house.

Among the seven supporting players, Newman offers reliably sturdy support. A couple of Chicago transplants, Ian Patrick Williams (especially good as the chief doctor) and Victor D'Altorio (as, among others, a transsexual pal of Ellen's), prove their mettle throughout.

"Detachments" is a production of the Loretta Theatre; the chief players behind this show are Loretta members Beth Henley ("Crimes of the Heart") and Amy Madigan ("Field of Dreams"). The Loretta folks, who really must find a theater to call their own, relate easily to Steppenwolf alums such as Headly. All are accomplished in many mediums but reserve a special devotion to the stage.

Headly spent nearly a decade away from the theater before last year's acclaimed London revival of the Wallace Shawn play "Aunt Dan and Lemon." It's apples and oranges, to be sure, yet seeing Headly in "Detachments," a pleasant enough piece, isn't the same as seeing her wrestle with Shawn's haunting brand of black comedy.

But within reason, we take our onstage pros wherever and however we can find them.

BE THERE

"Detachments," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 29. $25. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Glenne Headly: Ellen

Victor D'Altorio: Dr. Stratton, Christine, others

Timothy Davis-Reed: Val, X-Ray Man, others

Thea Mann: Zoe, Betsy, others

Laraine Newman: Usher Consultant, Charlotte, others

Jamie Rose: Janet, Nice Nurse, others

Albie Selznick: Garry, others

Ian Patrick Williams: Patrik, Dr. Flynn, others

Written and directed by Colleen Dodson-Baker. Scenic design by Victoria Profitt. Costumes by Tom McKinley. Lighting by Marianne Schneller. Sound by Julie Ferrin. Composer David Spear. Production stage manager John Lovick.

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