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THEATER REVIEW

Modern immaturity

Sibling rivalries get a rehashing when a pair of baby boomers have to take care of their ailing mom in the wistful 'Spin Cycle.'

August 04, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

In David Rambo's "The Spin Cycle," a wistful comedy about two baby boomers reenacting their old sibling rivalry while caring for their elderly mother, adolescent tantrums are often accompanied by hot flashes, and the kiddie game Candy Land can make a grown man squeal. Rarely has the term "adult children" seemed so apt.

The play, which had its world premiere Saturday at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, has a few worthwhile insights about the offspring of the "greatest generation" -- namely, that they've been swaddled by their take-charge parents into a never-ending toddler-hood.

And there's plenty of cartoonish fun to be had in watching the same scene replayed from opposing dysfunctional views.

But for all the playwright's fooling around with memory and perspective, this is essentially a sitcom in search of larger theatrical meaning.

Location: a suburban nowhere (technically, Pottstown, Pa., but unlike all the funniest TV shows, the setting doesn't becomes a character).

Picture a tastefully appointed home, generic in an upscale way that doesn't reveal much about class or community. Now let's meet the familiarly kooky trio.

Wendy (Stephanie Zimbalist), 51 and twice divorced, arrives at her mother's house drenched in menopausal sweat and in no mood for the usual Thanksgiving hullabaloo.

And why should she be? She's always being needled about her weight by her just-noticing Mom (Marcia Rodd).

And, as usual, brother Mikey (Morgan Rusler) is getting all the attention, even though he's a loser with a beer belly who refuses to hold down a full-time job, while Wendy finally has turned her life around by selling vacation time shares to graying golfoholics.

Mom looks well-kept, but time is catching up with her.

At first, she's bouncing with laundry-folding energy, but she's changed forever after she takes a spill, gets sent to the hospital and comes back with a walker and an express pass to infirmity.

There's an awful lot of "am not"/"are so" business between Wendy and Mikey, who are overwhelmed by the responsibility of becoming parents to the person who helped turn them into whiny kids.

If growing up means taking control of your own narrative, these two are still fighting over the story line that dominated their upbringing.

Mikey, the perennial baby, was Mom's favorite after her older son was killed in Vietnam and Wendy, the girl who should know better, was left to sulk and smolder.

In the first half, Rambo would rather deal out chortling one-liners than tunnel for truth. Poor Wendy gets the worst of it. Shortchanged by her childhood, she's further cheated by her author, who'd sell her down the river for a zingy gag.

Listen to the way her mother yammers on about her daughter: "Wendy could take care of herself -- even through bad boyfriends, her hippie period, then her yuppie period, and the divorces, the abortion, the drugs, the bankruptcy, the evictions, her liver infection . . . "

In fairness, this is the glib recap that Wendy experiences (who knows what was really said?), but there's far too much pandering to the lowest-common-denominator laugh for us to be genuinely moved by the play's eventual poignancy.

As Tamara Jenkins' beautifully observed 2007 film "The Savages" demonstrated, sibling dramas don't have to succumb to travesty to get a rise. We can even handle a fair amount of gallows humor, provided there's some compassionate enlightenment at stake.

Rambo's effort gains strength in the second half, after Mom's mind fractures from a series of mini-strokes. The play boldly ushers us into her mental reality, allowing us to feel the confusion and powerlessness that have ambushed her while Wendy and Mikey bicker with broken hearts about nursing duty and the fate of the house.

The production, staged by Rubicon artistic director James O'Neil, is well paced and smoothly delivered.

Yes, the use of magic bells and flashing lights when a character rewinds a scene can seem as juvenile as an episode of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," but the play's rambunctious style is comfortably arrayed on Tom Buderwitz's jaunty set.

Broadly amusing, the cast isn't without psychological grit. Rodd's performance becomes more rooted and sympathetic as her character's health slides. Rusler amiably captures Mikey's slobby stuntedness, making it strangely easy to imagine this strapping fellow in a diaper -- a surreal turn that might have punched up Rambo's comedy.

But it's Zimbalist who cuts the strongest impression as Wendy, a woman who had to feign maturity before she was ready and is now being offered another chance by unrelenting life to catch up.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'The Spin Cycle'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 24

Price: $29 to $52

Contact: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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