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Theater | THEATER REVIEW

This 'Party' hasn't worn out welcome

December 19, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

At this special time of year, it's tempting to turn to the inspirational stories of Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey and other yuletide icons of goodwill. But why bother, when you can head over to "Bob's Holiday Office Party" instead?

"Just relax and pretend that we're all friends," says Sheriff Joe Walker (Joe Keyes) to the motley denizens of Neuterburg, Iowa, as they gather to celebrate the season in the office of insurance agent Bob Finhead (Rob Elk). It's sage advice in a place where everyone knows your name -- and everything else about you since the day you were born.

Now in its eighth year, this devastatingly funny portrait of small-town Americana at its tackiest has become even more potent with age. Conceived by Elk and Keyes and developed through improv by a talented ensemble of their fellow Midwest refugees, this take-no-prisoners parody has grown sharper since playwright Justin Tanner assumed the director's helm last year.

A few new jokes and topical updates notwithstanding, the broad contours of the piece haven't changed.

Bob, a soft touch who backdates his friends' policies and adds alien abduction riders on request, still pines for a bigger life in Des Moines. He can't quite bring himself to end his affair with Margie (Andrea Hutchman), the mayor's hygiene-obsessed wife.

Spinster farm sisters La Voris and La Donna (Laura Carson and Maile Flanagan) finish each other's sentences and share groping dances with Sheriff Joe. Their pothead nephew (Mark Fite) sees every household object as a bong-making opportunity.

The versatile Ann Randolph is even more outrageous this time around playing twin sisters -- one a sexually frustrated pastor's wife belting out her rage in psychotic folksongs, and the other a decrepit, booze-swilling floozy.

Pat O'Brien is magnificently nerdy as the former school sissy Elwin Beewee, who returns to town a millionaire from his hog confinement systems. Vengeance-minded Elwin preys on Bob's wanderlust to gain a real estate foothold that threatens Neuterburg's idyllically idiotic way of life.

These hilariously obnoxious yet unexpectedly sympathetic characters are so keenly observed and skillfully portrayed that they never wear out their welcome. Tanner's adept staging has noticeably tightened the focus.

Whether you're a first-timer or an old acquaintance, this is one "Office Party" you don't want to miss.

*

'Bob's Holiday Office Party'

When: Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles

Cost: $15-$20

Contact: (323) 960-7717

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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