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Theater | Theater Review

'Chairs': Humorous, If Familiar, Insights

July 18, 2002|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Armed with a seductive accent and a keen eye for the humorous side of life, Jamaican-born actor-writer Debra Ehrhardt crafts a warmhearted narrative out of her lifelong struggle to understand the opposite sex--and the unexpected sources of support and strength she found along the way--in "Invisible Chairs" at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center.

In this debut staging for the Group at Strasberg, director Laraine Mestman plays to Ehrhardt's performance strengths--her attractive, charismatic presence and relaxed, confessional delivery. But Ehrhardt's insights, while important in the context of her own journey, don't offer much in the way of groundbreaking revelations--this is essentially a solo performance as therapy session, albeit an entertaining one that deals with problems many of us can relate to.

To further personalize the event, Ehrhardt enlists the onstage support of her real-life, 18-year-old son, Danny, who gamely fills in some of the supplemental characters (most successfully his own); hence the billing as a "one-and-a-half" person show.

The central issue Ehrhardt confronts knows no geographic or racial boundaries--her compulsive need to keep the men in her life at a distance. The prospect of intimacy was so terrifying that she avoided men to whom she was passionately attracted, instead marrying someone she knew she would never fall in love with. Predictably, the union didn't last, but the birth of Danny meant she could no longer keep ducking understanding and emotional ties with the male she would have to raise.

Blocking her path stands the forbidding figure of her father, an irresistibly charming salesman with feet of clay. Through remembrances of his emotional rebuffs of the young Debra, and re-enactments of his disastrous marriage to her mother, the narrative skillfully grounds the origins of Ehrhardt's failed relationships in "the daddy problem" she had coped with all her life.

It falls to Danny to unearth a poignant discovery about her father's past that allows Ehrhardt to break her own cycle of emotional distancing in this compact, unpretentious celebration of the power of understanding and forgiveness.

"Invisible Chairs," Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Aug. 11. $17-19. (323) 650-7777. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

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