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Resisting the Big Payoff for a Wealth of Meaning

Playwright Eric Bagan strives for ambiguity in 'Family Practice'--an easily defined work could be too easily forgotten.

February 05, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given what's playing at South Coast Repertory these days, maybe they ought to rename the place Dysfunction Junction.

On the Mainstage you have Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," featuring an idle-rich, exquisitely articulate family living a life of catty, chatty desperation.

On the Second Stage is John Guare's "Bosoms and Neglect," in which a son driven half-crazy by his aged mother seeks all the answers on a psychiatrist's couch when the answers he needs can be had only from dear old mom. As with the Albee play, the main characters ultimately spill their deepest hurts in highly theatrical fashion, complete with memorable extended arias for the lead actors.

Tonight, the Costa Mesa theater offers one of its periodic staged readings of new plays. For those so inclined, Eric Bagan's "Family Practice" nicely augments the Albee and Guare shows to form a sort of triple-header of family life gone awry.

But Bagan, a 39-year-old San Francisco resident who earns his living as a library administrator, has a different approach. Nobody in his troubled family, the Greens, seems to speak for more than a terse sentence or two at a time. Talkative--yes, in a staccato sort of way. Expressive--no.

The irritant in this family is Robin, the younger of its two sons. In his mid-30s, he has no direction in life and no discernible motivation to do anything about it. His father, older brother and sister-in-law are successful, very wealthy physicians. The play traces a family vacation in Venice, Italy. Nothing big happens; there are many small vexations within the unit, especially the litany of subtle pushes, prods and suggestions directed at Robin, whom the others hope will reach his "turning point" and get a life.

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To give the piece some thematic heft, Bagan introduces the Holocaust in a very oblique way: for most of this Jewish family, visiting the historic ghetto of Venice--according to the script, it was the first district ever to be termed a "ghetto"--is a deeply moving experience. Only for the ever out-of-step Robin is it not a big deal.

The play never does reach a revelatory moment of truth and confrontation--which is common enough in real family life, but unusual for the kinds of families we are used to seeing on stage. The big scene that points toward a resolution--Stanley versus Blanche, Willy versus Biff, Hamlet versus Gertrude--never arrives.

This is not only odd in itself, but doubly so considering what inspired Bagan to get involved in theater: a big monologue.

"Seeing [Guare's] 'Six Degrees of Separation' in 1991 was a key moment for me theatrically," he said last week. "It had a galvanizing effect. There was a monologue Stockard Channing delivered near the end of the play--I'd never experienced anything like that sort of poignancy. It stayed with me a long time, and I felt in the audience a sort of immediacy" of shared response.

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Bagan, who had worked for the New York City public schools as a teacher and teacher-recruiter, moved to San Francisco in 1993 and began writing and performing comically satiric monologues.

After seeing himself on videotape Bagan realized he was "a wretched actor." But, he said, "the material was strong and that propelled me" as a playwright.

"Family Practice" is his fourth play; his first two got readings in prominent venues--the Mark Taper Forum's New Works Festival and the National New Plays Festival in Chicago. But he remains an unproduced playwright.

Is writing a play without a climactic speech, a grand actor's showcase--one lacking exactly the thing that first inspired him--the way to make one's way in the theater?

At least it is something different, Bagan said, and he thinks that making a distinctive mark is his best bet in moving forward as a playwright.

"I was trying to create this sort of chorus of meaninglessness that became meaningful," he said. "Taken individually, [the characters in 'Family Practice'] are laconic. People are interrupting, talking over each other, saying things that in and of themselves do not have the gravitas of Stockard Channing."

The aim, he says, is not so much to reveal his intentions for the characters as to create meaningful ambiguities--something he says intrigued him about Guare's approach in "Six Degrees."

"I strive for ambiguity in everything I write," Bagan said. "Almost to where it becomes difficult to say something definitive about a play. I like plays where the playwright is not didactic, you never feel his heavy hand telling you what to think, and you're not sure what he thinks."

The conventional wisdom says that audiences don't like to be disconcerted this way. But Bagan doesn't think the conventional wisdom is, in the long run, very wise.

"The problem with the theater today is that people feel they have to cater to the audience, and the audience doesn't want that. Some people may hanker for more clarification, but if you resist that, you're better off."

Though the audience is denied the conventional scene or speech that resolves things, Bagan says, it should gain lots to ponder.

"If the playwright denies that expectation, maybe it will create more questions in the mind of the theatergoer afterward than it would by simply meeting those expectations. I know that can be frustrating, but it's worth it. It's much less frustrating for me to write that way."

SHOW TIME

"Family Practice," staged reading tonight at 7:30 at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $8. (714) 708-5555.

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