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THEATER REVIEW

Maybe in their quest they'll find a play

April 25, 2006|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

Poor June's dying of breast cancer. What a drag -- for her friends Leah, Gash and Joy, that is, who have plenty of their own problems: men, unemployment, too much booze, men again. Everybody could use a small miracle. In Bryony Lavery's underwritten "Last Easter," now receiving its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, these four Londoners encounter both the limits of hope and empathy as the clock mercilessly runs down on June's life.

Or rather, they would if Lavery had actually written a play. "Last Easter" is more a series of unfinished sketches on a perennial secular humanist conundrum: how to face death (your own or someone else's) when you don't believe in an afterlife.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a pilgrimage. At the instigation of Gash (Kelly Mantle), the three take June for a final holiday in France. There, they "happen" to visit Lourdes, the holy site where sick and disabled believers arrive annually in hopes of being healed in St. Bernadette's holy grotto. June (Helen Wassell) gets a dunking all right, but her subsequent revelation is not at all what she expected. Later, in a replay of the Garden of Gethsemane, this quietly devastated woman considers her options as her friends desert her, drifting off in search of sex or to sleep off too much Cotes du Rhone. She decides to ask them for the modern medical equivalent of a Judas kiss.

Lavery's willingness to say certain heretical things out loud -- that it's draining to have a friend with a terminal illness, that the dying don't care about your problems, that euthanasia might not be such a big deal -- is refreshing. She resists wringing an ennobling lesson out of suffering while keeping her eye out for the ways we nestle into cliches as a means of avoiding pain.

Unfortunately, Laguna Playhouse's minimalist production, played out on designer Narelle Sissons' stark white dais, also lays bare less flattering features of Lavery's writing. There's her vastly annoying habit of narrating instead of showing ("And then we went ... " "So I decided to ... "). In Lavery's Tony-nominated "Frozen," she relies on direct address to help the audience engage with difficult figures: a grief-wracked mother, a pedophile-murderer. Here, the technique feels like a dodge to avoid developing sustained interaction among "Easter's" friends.

And the playwright endows her characters with virtually nothing in the way of intention or dimensions, stranding actors to create a world out of the occasional monologue, a few very good jokes and an awful lot of blue ones. Fortunately Mantle, as the promiscuous Gash, hits Lavery's punch lines with the same confidence his uncle Mickey used to knock 'em out of the ballpark; Yosefa Forma's Leah graciously serves as Mantle's straight (wo)man.

Lavery's gaps leave the biggest hole at the center of the play: June goes on and on about the miracle of light and the genius of Caravaggio, but that doesn't make us feel any compassion for her -- she's just an actor on stage speaking lines to an audience. The playwright's managed to write a protagonist almost entirely without feeling, history, sexuality or need.

Kirsten Chandler's Joy is the only performer who communicates anything like an actual soul, and her emotional desperation has more kick than anything else in the play. The moment she stumbles on stage, you know who she is -- a grouchy-sexy lioness looking for someone to talk her out of the idea that life isn't worth it. Chandler brings a sharp intelligence to Joy's extremism, making it impossible to watch anyone else when she's on stage.

Director Richard Stein doesn't help things by keeping the pacing predictable and leisurely when he might have upped the ante by careening into a scene or bleeding out of one awkwardly when we least expected it.

It's great when a director works with nothing more than four actors, four chairs and a set of lights, but Stein brings little visual surprise to the show. That said, it would take some serious help from no less than St. Bernadette to save this flat-lining play. Who knew losing your religion and committing assisted suicide could be so dull?

"Last Easter" is a bit of a departure for Laguna Playhouse, which keeps its doors open by programming mostly reassuring fare. It's good to see it take a risk with darker material. Let's hope the next playwright gives it more to work with.

*

`Last Easter'

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

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: May 21

Price: $20 to $59

Contact: (949) 497-2787

Running time: 2 hours

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