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Disappointing Prospects From 'Young Man'

Theater

Review* Despite a good cast, questions linger in this production of the Horton Foote play.

March 28, 2002|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Horton Foote's dramas, seldom seen in these parts, get an unveiling this month with two premieres.

There's the world premiere of "Getting Frankie Married--and Afterwards" at South Coast Repertory this weekend, and last Friday the Newport Theatre Arts Center staged "The Young Man From Atlanta" in Orange County for the first time.

Let's hope "Getting Frankie Married" leaves a bigger Foote-print. "Young Man From Atlanta," despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, is disappointing.

Some critics have wondered how this only mildly interesting play could have hauled in such a major award, and this Arts Center production, which lasts through April 21, does nothing to ease the head-scratching.

Foote, probably best known as the screenwriter of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies," sets "The Young Man From Atlanta" in his favorite milieu, the South of the go-go '50s, when every big city dreamed of being bigger. But this blustery optimism is spoiled for one family. Will Kidder (Jack Messenger) busies himself with plans for a new home and a fancy car for his wife, Lily Dale (Harriet Whitmyer), until he's fired from his executive job. Hanging over this is the far greater loss of his son, who recently drowned.

There are whispers of suicide and fretful references to the character of the title, the son's roommate who persistently tries to connect with the Kidders. Is he out for money or does his devotion hint that he was more than just good friends with the son? Will, who has heart trouble on top of all this, isn't eager to find out. Since the Young Man is only talked about mysteriously and never does appear, we have to do our own guesswork.

Clearly, it's time for the Kidders to learn what's really important in life and Foote goes about showing them, in fits and starts. The inspiration is obviously Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," but "The Young Man From Atlanta" lacks the lyricism or passion to breathe fire into this familiar tale of the soured American Dream. It feels commonplace, and our attention drifts away.

Director Phyllis Gitlin also has trouble with tone at the Arts Center. At times the drama has the gravity it needs but too often there's the forced conviviality of an "Ozzie and Harriet" episode. That's overstating it, of course, but when Messenger casts a peeved look at the cowed Whitmyer and huffs around as if she just served him burnt toast for breakfast, it feels trivial and awkward against the serious events unfolding around them.

To be fair, Gitlin is faced with balancing the play's deeper message (which is, I think, to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get on with it, no matter how bad things seem) against the occasional humor. You laugh when the sweet and silly Lily Dale goes on about national conspiracies concocted by Eleanor Roosevelt, but it doesn't blend with the whole.

The cast is capable but was patchy during Friday's opening night. Whitmyer was the most watchable, especially when she had the opportunity to reveal something of the pain and confusion under Lily Dale's gay surface. There was also some solid work in this un-solid environment from supporting actors Patricia Newman (as the live-in help, Clara), Seymour Schwartz (Lily Dale's stepfather) and Simon Panczyk (Carson, a visiting relative).

"The Young Man From Atlanta," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. $13. Ends April 21. (949) 631-0288.

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