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Costumes a Mixed Bag in 'Lady's Not for Burning'

The century-swapping clothes accent this rarely produced play by Christopher Fry.

July 19, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A decade before "Look Back in Anger" (hilarious "SCTV" parody: "Look Back in a Bloody Rage") and the British angry-young-man vogue, playwright Christopher Fry rose to prominence. He did so with characters less angry than philosophical about humankind and its follies, speaking in plummy blank verse.

"The Lady's Not for Burning" (1948) may be Fry's best-known play in America, but it still hasn't seen much stateside action in recent decades. As such, the current Malibu Stage Company revival directed by Charles Marowitz constitutes the sighting of a relatively rare bird.

The not-bad news: Even with its atmospheric limitations and shticky flourishes, this production represents a big jump up from last summer's Malibu Stage offering, "Stage Fright."

JD Cullum, who played Clifford in the recent Pasadena Playhouse "Side Man," here acts opposite a fine and striking L.A. newcomer, Camillia Sanes. Memorably, Sanes made flesh and blood of a fantasy figure in the 1995 La Jolla Playhouse production of "Cloud Tectonics." She's worth watching.

Fry sets his disquisition in the home of a provincial mayor, in "1400 either more or less or exactly." A battle-weary ex-soldier, Thomas Mendip (Cullum), has endured seven years' bloody doings in Flanders. In a polite, even chipper way, he has come to request that he be hanged.

This being a high time for witch hunts, the suspected devil woman Jennet Jourdemayne (Sanes) is about to be martyred by a bloodthirsty citizenry. "Burning," in its genteel fashion, throws together Mendip and Jourdemayne, outcasts destined for a life together.

Director Marowitz takes Fry's more-or-less 1400 setting and gives it a shake. In his dusty greatcoat, Mendip's the picture of the World War I veteran. The mayor's loutish nephews Humphrey (Nathan G. Johnson) and Nicholas (John Emmet Tracy), both in love with Alizon (Amy Chaffee) who's in love with the clerk Richard (Jeff Marlowe), are costumed like soccer hooligans, with a dash of Sid Vicious. Justice Tappercoom (Patrick Lander) steps straight out of Restoration comedy.

It's all a bit self-conscious, this century-scrambling costume design. Marowitz has a penchant for sight gags--unison nodding, or one character stumbling backward over another--that clutter things up while slowing things down. (Before Mendip's line, "Oh, the unholy mantrap of love!" the director has Sanes do a ooga-booga supernatural bit that's pretty stupid.)

Still, the best actors, including Terry Diab's elegantly aghast Margaret, take your mind off the folderol. They also distract, to some degree, from the distinct oddness of the theater itself, a converted '70s-looking Lutheran church.

*

* "The Lady's Not for Burning," Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway (near Heathercliff), Malibu. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Aug. 26. $20. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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