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Theater Review

'Sam' Bequeaths a Legacy of Laughs


An astute critic once pointed out that the most successful television sitcoms revolve around a group of fantastically disparate people who gradually coalesce into a "family."

That standard comes to mind when viewing Ray Proscia's "Imitating Sam," the inaugural production for Chautauqua Theatre Alliance at the Egyptian Arena Theatre. Proscia, who also co-produced and plays a central role, sets "Sam" in a Brooklyn bar. Although reasonably well-structured, with solid laughs and a few well-jerked tears, the play often feels like an amplified sitcom, filled with relentlessly eccentric characters who interact more for comic effect than dramatic veracity.

Peggy McCay, familiar to television audiences as Caroline Brady on the daytime serial "Days of Our Lives," stars as Mary Anne McNeill-Rothstein, whose husband, Sam, the owner of a neighborhood pub, has just died.

When Irish Catholic Mary Anne married Jewish Sam years ago, their families mutually disowned them. Maybe that's why big-hearted Sam made a habit of adopting "orphans" in similar situations, offbeat characters such as Terry (ANT), a flamboyantly gay hairdresser, and Al (Proscia), a reformed drunk with a prison record, both of whom live in apartments upstairs from the bar.

Sam's longtime bartender, Al still carries a blazing torch for Sara (Gail Godown), Sam and Mary Anne's now-married daughter, who arrives for the funeral, and winds up reevaluating her marriage and her life.

Unaware of Sam's sudden passing, Tanya (Glenda Redfield), an African American professor and her younger Caucasian husband, Cubby (Ric Coy), show up at the bar, ready to move into the apartment Sam promised. But this "orphanage" is about to be closed, and when Sara approaches his estranged aunts Rona (Lynda Lenet) and Cheryl (Gail Johnston) for help, the outraged Mary Anne threatens to disown her. Can differences be settled and the estate saved in time for a happy ending?

Director Richard Hochberg approaches this broad material with appropriate boldness, but his staging would have benefited from more restraint here and there. Under Hochberg's tutelage, the actors certainly don't hold back. When first introduced, Redfield goes so far over the top that we wonder why these folks just don't call the cops on her. Lenet's initial moments are similarly strident.

Energetic McCay was rocky on her lines the first weekend of the run, and Proscia seems oddly miscast as Sara's macho Italian admirer. Among the parade of stereotypes, ANT manages to bring depth to his wry gay-guy persona.

Godown is authoritative, the calm center of the play's lunatic fringe, although why costume designer Janet Teller dresses her in a micro-mini that threatens Godown's propriety every time she sits down is a mystery. Scot Renfro's bar set is rendered in wonderfully seedy detail.

"Imitating Sam," Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 10. $18. (323) 960-8865. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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