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Stage Light

Able Cast Successfully Navigates This 'Landscape'

April 26, 2001|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is always a moment when watching a play by John Guare that a question floats through your head: Where is this thing going? Guare, perhaps more than any other American playwright, dares himself to go down a rabbit hole to see if he'll get to the other side.

That certainly seems to have been the case with his 1977 play, "Landscape of the Body," though by the time it's over, you are astonished to realize that Guare knew where he was going all along.

Director James Serpento's revival staging at the Eclectic Company Theatre doesn't always appear to know where it's going, either. But if there are several hiccups along the way, there is a consistent strength of conviction and an embrace of Guare's sheer love for the beauty and mystery of theater's effects that end up moving you in ways you hardly expected.

Guare borrows some of the framework of a murder mystery for his tale of Betty (D.J. Harner), a mother from Bangor, Maine, who goes to the Big Apple with her innocent teenage son Bert (Daniel Hagen) to retrieve her sister Rosalie (Daphne Ashbrook), who's fallen into the slime of the porn business.

No sooner does Betty make contact with Rosalie than the troubled sister is killed by a bicyclist in one of those freak accidents Guare loves, and Betty and Bert settle into their new life in the big city where both find their innocence eroded.

Bert especially ends up in cahoots with Donny (Aaron Belliston), rolling unsuspecting gay men for their cash. When Bert is found dead and decapitated, Betty is the prime suspect in the view of the overly aggressive detective on the case, Capt. Holahan (Ted Barton).

Since "Landscape" is fundamentally about memory, all of this is told in non-chronological parts in the fragmented ways we often remember. The play also is about cheating death: Thus, Rosalie, who's dead, serves as a brilliant, fiery, omniscient narrator and chorus, supplying context and several coy and elusive songs (also by Guare). Serpento inserts telling music cues of his own, bits from film noir movies for the Holahan investigation scenes.

The unreality is heightened the more Betty falls into her New York life, such as with sleazy employer Raulito (Ricardo Molina), whose travel agency is a mere scam, and a sudden visit from Durwood Peach (Robert Briscoe Evans), a mentally deranged but sweet man. The various parts of the play and production don't seem to come together but eventually do, as mysteriously as the murder mystery itself. This makes "Landscape" resonant, like music itself, defying description.

The title of a collection of Guare's one-acts, "The War Against the Kitchen Sink," helps sum up part of his view as an artist, and it's carried over here by the actors, who have gone with Guare's poetry.

This doesn't preclude emotional truth, and Harner's Betty is a shaded portrait of shattered naivete and dawning realization through loss. In the difficult role of Bert, Hagen tries to overcome a tendency to deliver lines flatly, while Ashbrook is the kind of actor who can send out Broadway-style dazzle with a dose of blunt sarcasm.

Barton's cop begins as an absurd, gruff type, but by the end--like the whole fascinating, improbable evening--is thoroughly humanized.

BE THERE

"Landscape of the Body," Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 20. $12-$15. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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