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Marriage: Isn't it ridiculous?

Beth Henley's latest foray into the subject, although not her best, has wit and feeling.

October 23, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Nothing fascinates Beth Henley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Crimes of the Heart," quite like the misdemeanors and occasional felonies committed in the name of love.

With her plays' combination of genteel family breakdown and Southern Gothic eccentricity, she sometimes seems like the literary love child of Anton Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor. But it's conjugal madness -- the shared delusions and sneaking deceptions of husbands and wives -- that is Henley's signature subject. If the title of one of her most underrated plays, "Impossible Marriage," doesn't give it away, then surely her latest, "Ridiculous Fraud," which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, should clear up any doubts.

Wedding-day blues are just the starting point. "Ridiculous Fraud," a welcome if far from perfect addition to the quirky Henley corpus, begins with a petrified groom hiding out at his incarcerated father's elegant New Orleans home. After suffering through a prenuptial dinner, Lafcad Clay (Ian Fraser) has decided to call off tomorrow's ceremony. He simply can't marry someone whose sensibility is so unlike his own, which might be a problem given that he's quixotic to the point of being unemployable.

When his brother Andrew (Matt McGrath) eventually catches up with him, he insists that Lafcad not put the family honor in greater jeopardy than it already is with their dad locked up for fraud. Andrew desperately wants to be Louisiana's new state auditor. He's ostensibly the stable son in the family, the one most comfortable wearing a suit and assuming the adult responsibilities that go with it. Little does he suspect that there's more askew than a jittery husband-to-be.

Willow (Betsy Brandt), Andrew's wife, has fallen hard for Kap (Matt Letscher), the most rugged and romantic of the Clay brothers, the kind of guy who wants to revel in the beauty of a woman's legs, then go out and shoot a flock of ducks. Complicating matters further, Willow's recently widowed father, Ed (Paul Vincent O'Connor), has a new wife, Maude (Nike Doukas), who's causing all sorts of romantic mischief with the Clay brothers despite battling a life-threatening illness.

Uncle Baites (Randy Oglesby) chalks up the family turmoil to "bad marital genes." He knows of what he speaks: Ever susceptible to screwy infatuations, he's taken up with Georgia (Eliza Pryor), a runaway with a cheap wooden leg that he wants to replace with a more expensive model. Not much time passes before he's bestowing on her an overpriced engagement ring as a way of keeping social services from sending her back home.

As "Crimes of the Heart" revolves around three sisters, "Ridiculous Fraud" focuses on three brothers. Sorry to say, the male trio doesn't compare to the female one, who were unforgettably brought to life by Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek in the 1986 movie. What's missing in the new work is a similar floating center of emotional gravity.

Lafcad, Andrew and Kap certainly possess their share of distinguishing idiosyncrasies, but they never rise beyond the level of supporting characters. It's as if they have been drawn from the outside in, rather than the inside out, which might explain why, likable though they are, they provide more color than warmth.

Despite the relative smallness of the role, the most haunting figure is the dying Maude. Doukas communicates so much quiet truth with her eyes that she makes an underwritten part seem filled with the unsayable. It's hard not to wish that the drama had made more room for a perspective that most openly channels the author's sympathetic identification.

Henley's a more innovative writer than has been acknowledged. Her plays are structured less as traditional character journeys than as thematic riffs involving constellations of humanity. The plotting for "Ridiculous Fraud," however, seems to indulge in free association to a fault, incorporating the plucking of dead birds, a bloody wound accidentally caused by an arrow, an intentional act of facial mutilation and a mime decked out as a silver angel. Full explanations aren't always forthcoming.

The play's title refers not merely to the crime perpetuated by the unseen Clay patriarch that looms over the rest of the household but, more pointedly, to the institution of marriage as it is disingenuously practiced. It's a rich animating idea. But in four acts spanning four seasons, there are more twists than can be contained within it.

"I must hold this family together all by myself without glue," Andrew exhorts himself early on, and it often feels as though the drama is likewise struggling to find a proper adhesive.

Few playwrights, it must be said, create such inhabitable worlds. But Henley can get sidetracked by silly incidentals and empty symbolic shenanigans. For example, at a crucial moment we are interrupted by Willow's unresonant musings on bottled Coke's lack of fizz, and for a coda we must make do with a few ponderous toots of Kap's duck whistle.

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