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THEATER | REVIEWS

A Sorkin morality play in 'Men'

December 05, 2003|Rob Kendt, Philip Brandes, David C. Nichols

With his snappy dialogue and rock-ribbed plotting, Aaron Sorkin is one of the better American dramatists of the 1950s. That his career actually began in the late '80s is a minor detail that has not deterred his steady ascent in both prestige and popularity -- proving that for all our supposed channel-surfing cynicism, some of us are still suckers for morality plays that end tidily with a verdict and an object lesson.

Sorkin's 1989 play, "A Few Good Men," is so old-fashioned that its scattered F words and references to Yoo-hoos seem almost shockingly anachronistic. More typical is a joke military lawyer Dan Kaffee (a swaggering Joel Berti) springs on a stiff-necked Marine (a haunting Sean McGowan) whom he is defending in a trumped-up court martial: "Did you hear the one about the Japanese fighter pilot who hated jazz? He bombed Pearl Bailey." Naturally the Marine gives him a blank stare.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Premiere status -- A review of the play "A Few Good Men" in Friday's Calendar incorrectly referred to the production at Third Stage as the play's L.A. premiere. The play was first seen in the L.A. area in a production at the Wilshire Theatre in 1992.

Similarly grim faces fill the buzz-cut ranks of director David Blanchard's seamlessly earnest new production at Third Stage -- not least among them Blanchard's own formidable Donald Pleasance-as-Travis Bickle countenance in the role of Kendrick, a Bible-quoting lieutenant. An impressively martial tone -- drumrolls, patriotic songs and call-and-response drills cover scene changes across Danny Cistone's set of camouflage and barbed wire -- is sufficiently back-stiffening to prop up our interest, more or less, through the plot's formulaic turns, in which no subtext is unexplained, no motivation unspoken.

If the result plays more like a solid revival of a well-worn classic than the show's L.A. premiere, that's not far off the mark. The cast has no weak links, though Angela Pupello's swish and bite as Kaffee's tightly wound colleague are a bit broad for the room. Dick DeCoit, with a scar that tells us as much about his character as any of his lines, seethes memorably as the piece's unambiguous villain, the grizzled Col. Jessup.

Of course we know how it will all turn out, not because we've seen the movie but because Sorkin's storytelling is as dutiful as any Marine private: He tells us what to expect and then gives it to us. At ease, indeed.

-- Rob Kendt

"A Few Good Men," Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 20. $15-$20. (818) 842-4755. 2 hours, 40 minutes.

*

'Shyness Is Nice,' squalid and funny

"If it weren't for the murder and the black specter of death hanging over my head, this would be one of the best nights of my life," admits one of the bewildered roommates trying to make sense of pure chaos in Mark Spitz's "Shyness Is Nice."

Amid a raucous, riotous plunge into the most violent intersections of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, perhaps the biggest shock in Spitz's very black comedy is the sweet coming-of-age story that emerges from all its flash and trash.

In an edgy, take-no-prisoners environmental staging by Suzan Fellman for Burbank's Alliance Repertory Company, the entire venue is transformed into the grunge-themed apartment of nerdy rock devotees Stew (Adam Legg) and Rodney (Michael Cassady), with walls and ceiling covered in black trash can liners and furniture wrapped in cellophane and black tape.

Rendered with the hilarious precision of a good "Saturday Night Live" skit, Stew and Rodney are still virgins at 30 -- ostensibly in tribute to their celibate idol, Morrissey, but really because they have kept themselves in an emotionally safe state of arrested development, obsessively centering their lives on collectible recordings by their favorite bands.

The messiness of sexuality intrudes on these goofy man-children in an inescapable and hilarious way when their heroin- dealing friend Fitzgerald (played by Jeff Urquhart with a perfect mix of cheerful laissez faire and self-destructive instability) hires a flighty Australian refugee prostitute named Kylie (Erin Underwood) to deflower them.

While Rodney flounders in search of the perfect CD to play, Kylie practically devours Stew, and the resulting clash of awkwardness and aggression is side-splitting. Business turns riskier, however, when Kylie's pimp, the tattooed, gun-toting Blixa (snarling, volatile Tolly Callaway), turns up to exact vengeance from Fitzgerald, who burned her on the drugs he used to pay for Kylie's services.

Thanks to fine performances and Spitz's sparkling dialogue, the laughs are constant throughout, even as the tone darkens amid a torrent of provocative language, violence and nudity. More problematical is the increasingly unbelievable behavior flimsily attributable to drug use -- would anyone follow a murder by phoning for Chinese food delivery? The absurdity undermines the life-changing insights the evening brings to Stew and Rodney.

But if you're willing to suspend disbelief -- and a lot of value judgments -- this unabashedly squalid little gem has a gleeful charm and logic all its own.

-- Philip Brandes

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