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THEATER REVIEW

Cut the quirks and what's left?

Bernard Farrell's new comedy, `The Verdi Girls,' is one missed opportunity after another. At least the stage is really cool.

June 04, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Comedy is all about truth. It's a mirror held up to human nature; we see ourselves and laugh into our own faces, reflected there before us.

The Laguna Playhouse production of Bernard Farrell's new comedy, "The Verdi Girls," begins with an element of utmost believability: a hotel suite in Milan, Italy, so luxuriously detailed that one wants to hop onto the stage, prop oneself up in bed and call for room service.

As the performance begins and the room fills with characters, however, reality quickly gives way to phoniness.

Too bad, because this production has been nurtured with high hopes. The playhouse, as part of an effort to ratchet up its development of new plays, commissioned this script from Farrell, the Irish writer whose work is so regularly scheduled there. Since 2000, his plays have been imported in a steady stream, with "Kevin's Bed," "Stella by Starlight," "Lovers at Versailles" and "Many Happy Returns" all receiving their U.S. premieres in Laguna.

Those plays have had their strengths and weaknesses; "The Verdi Girls" exhibits more of the latter than the former.

The Milan suite has been reserved by an American, Linda (Elyse Mirto), who has been a regular there, year after year, as enthusiasts gather to celebrate the work of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. Linda has always made this trip with her husband but, recently widowed, has invited another Verdi fan, the Irish Breda (Katharine McEwan), to share the room.

They are attended to by the caricatured Mario (Vasili Bogazianos), a hotel employee who manages to be present whenever they give each other a sisterly embrace. He gets it into his head that they are lovers and keeps saying, "Is OK -- I am Italian," in his fractured English, to signal his lack of prudery in such matters.

The room becomes the congregating spot for other regular attendees: Oliver (Gregory North), the grand -- in his own mind, anyway -- English organizer of a yearly Verdi quiz, and an American couple, Pete (Bo Foxworth) and Patricia (Traci L. Crouch).

Rather than personalities, the characters are ascribed mere assortments of quirks: Pete's red-faced, bug-eyed determination to win this year's quiz; Mario's leering delight in women's embraces; and foot fetishist Oliver's not-so-subtle devouring of bare digits. Sketchiest of all is Oliver's 83-year-old mother (Patricia Cullen), whose prankish nature, exhibited offstage until well into the story, is meant to propel some of the most outrageous developments.

Laughs ensue, although they're prompted not so much by the script as by the zany efforts of director Andrew Barnicle and his actors. Foxworth and Mirto, in particular, build up nice heads of steam as pile-ups of indignities cause the characters to lose their cool.

Julie Keen's costumes, telegraphing the characters' goofier tendencies, elicit some of the performance's heartiest guffaws, and Paulie Jenkins' lighting is artful as always.

Best of all is that set, designed by Dwight Richard Odle. The luxury appointments and the idyllic landscape mural above the beds are merely the most obvious examples of his attention to detail. Walk to the lip of the stage beforehand and peer offstage; you'll see the set's meticulous continuation into a bathroom in one direction and a hotel hallway in the other.

Had Farrell brought that observant an eye to the script, "The Verdi Girls" might have emerged as a telling study in competitiveness and wayward affection. As it stands, it's a woeful opera of missed opportunity.

daryl.miller@latimes.com

*

`The Verdi Girls'

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; also 2 p.m. June 14 and 7 p.m. June 24

Ends: July 1

Price: $30 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787 or www.lagunaplayhouse.com

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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