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THEATER REVIEW

There's not much in return

The anticipation builds in Bernard Farrell's 'Many Happy Returns,' but the subsequent mayhem ends too soon.

November 23, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The tree glows with tiny white lights; garlands swoop along the walls. As she finishes decorating, a woman -- whom we'll come to know as Irene -- sings "Winter Wonderland" to herself, unconcerned that she has to keep repeating "by the fire" because it and the title phrase are the only lyrics she remembers.

The peaceful opening moments of "Many Happy Returns," at Laguna Playhouse, present the very picture of holiday cheer. But you can bet a title like that is meant ironically, and sure enough, happy domesticity soon gives way to nerves, grumbles and generally bad behavior.

Promisingly, Bernard Farrell's play then begins to develop the characteristics of a sex farce. When the protracted buildup finally detonates, however, it delivers too brief a bang, despite the comic finesse of this presentation, under Andrew Barnicle's direction.

Farrell, who is Irish, sets his tale in a rural home not far from Dublin. Its living room, as designed by Dwight Richard Odle, is an attractively rustic burrow with half-timbered walls and vast stone fireplace.

As content as she seems at first, Irene (Susan Duerden) proves to be a bit manic as she prepares for houseguests. She's made elaborate plans for this Christmas Eve and is determined to see them turn out well.

None too thrilled about the down-the-chimney entrance he's expected to make as Santa, her husband, Arthur (Barry Lynch), grumps his way through a practice run. Matching him grouse for grouse is Irene's father, Matty (Nick Ullett), who complains to whoever will listen and delights in playing pranks on Arthur.

They're already headed toward a meltdown when the guests, Declan (Brendan Ford) and wife Amanda (Melanie Lora), arrive. Declan, who grew up nearby, has become a successful businessman in New Zealand. Irene hopes a friendly reconnection might lead to employment for Arthur, who has met with some at-first-unspecified career catastrophe.

A hot tub has been specially installed for the occasion, and the impending group soak turns Arthur into a stammering idiot around sensual Amanda. Declan, meanwhile, keeps sneaking hungry looks at Irene's backside.

So when Irene, innocently taking drink requests, asks, "Darling, do you want to make it a foursome?" the audience giggles in anticipation.

But the payoff scene occurs offstage, to be recounted by Arthur, and the subsequent mayhem is over almost as soon as it's begun.

Fortunately, the performers make the most of every moment along the way, especially Ullett's paterfamilias, placidly sipping his Guinness while Arthur falls prey to another practical joke, and Robin Pearson Rose as Matty's estranged better half, reacting to him -- and to the risque goings-on -- with pinched disapproval. Julie Keen's costumes, Paulie Jenkins' lights and David Edwards' sound all contribute to the comic mood.

In addition to "Many Happy Returns," the playhouse has presented Farrell's "Kevin's Bed" (2000), "Stella by Starlight" (2002) and "Lovers at Versailles" (2003). He hits upon a sweet if conventional notion here in his depiction of the lengths to which love can make a person go. But let's hope that the next time the playhouse schedules one of Farrell's shows, it gets happier returns on its investment.

*

'Many Happy Returns'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Call for additional times.

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $20 to $59

Contact: (949) 497-2787

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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