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THEATER REVIEW

Complex 'Tranced' could use some literary therapy Twists get tangled in shrink drama

January 12, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

To call Dr. Philip Malaad (Thomas Fiscella), a psychiatrist specializing in clinical hypnosis, "unorthodox" would be a gross understatement. In his dealings with a young African woman suffering from panic attacks, he denigrates the other doctors she has seen, threatens to give her a "smack on the bottom" when she challenges him and, strangest of all, invites a journalist to listen to tapes of their sessions.

In a therapeutic universe in which TV's Dr. Phil makes a hospital call on Britney Spears, anything should be believable. Still, "Tranced," the cat-and-mouse shrink drama receiving its premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, requires us to continually suppress the "Yeah, right!" reflex.

Bob Clyman, the play's author, is himself a psychologist. This obviously doesn't authenticate the psychiatric funny business, though it does force us to consider that there may be bizarre things going on during those $3-a-minute office visits.

In any case, the real problem with the drama, which has the benefit of a sleek production directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is literary rather than medical. The writing is unfailingly rich in ideas, but the dialogue is strained, the characters seem like an amalgamation of quirks and quandaries, and the plot hopscotches around like a demented Brownie.

When Azmera (Erica Tazel), an engineering graduate student with a vaguely British accent and a biting arrogance, walks into Philip's office, she practically dares him to cure her of symptoms that are interfering with her studies. She's not the type to put much faith in the talking cure, and fortunately for her, neither is he.

Philip heals by "trancing," a subtle form of hypnosis that seems more like unconscious manipulation than the old Hollywood shtick of a bearded European dangling a shiny object as he intones, "You are getting sleepy, very sleepy."

What emerges when Azmera is under Philip's command is a memory of an atrocity that occurred when she was in Africa the previous summer. This information prompts the doctor to contact Beth (Ashley West Leonard), a reporter who's been following the upheavals in the region. She suspects another Rwanda may be imminent and tries to persuade Logan (Andrew Borba), a government official, to press the leader of Azmera's fictitious homeland, who's awaiting World Bank funds to complete a controversial dam, to consent to an international investigation.

As much as Beth wants to prevent another African genocide, she can't write the story that's supposed to pressure the U.S. into intervening unless she can interview Philip's patient herself. Philip fears, however, that Azmera isn't ready to consciously confront the trauma that's bedeviling her.

Clyman isn't content to follow this poorly set up ethical dilemma. There's more, so much more, in this genre-defying drama, which has almost as many twists as "The Manchurian Candidate" but without the 1962 film's thrilling suspense.

In addition to the quarrel between Philip and Beth over the timing of an interview with Azmera, there's strife of both a geopolitical and a personal order between Beth and the underwritten character of Logan, who has a file on Philip that raises insidious suspicions. More crucial to the story line, Philip's treatment of Azmera provokes the question of who's really falling into a trance. But it wouldn't be fair to give too much away about a saga that's as convoluted in the viewing as it is in the retelling.

Clyman registers awareness of some of his play's shortcomings. To keep his audience up to speed, he sometimes has a character recap what has transpired so far. At other times, when a situation begins to seem implausible, he'll elbow-nudge with an ironic comment, as when Beth asks Philip, "Is your approach considered as strange as it's coming across to me?"

The annoying slingshot banter, however, is something that goes unchecked. Characters don't so much talk as crack pseudo-wise. Beyond the staginess, the quips don't always fit the speaker. Azmera, with her Oxford education and worldly manner, improbably remarks to Philip, "You can stick a fork in London, it's done." And socially engaged Beth is required to utter the ludicrous line, "Logan, I'd pull every nickel out of cancer research if they'd put it into curing whatever you've got."

Kubzansky's production doesn't have many such flat-footed moments. It concentrates on the geometric patterns of confrontation, preferring theatrical fluidity to hobbled realism.

The action crisscrosses Narelle Sissons' smart set, which consists of a desk and a scattering of chairs, in a way that's blessedly free of cumbersome detail. And Jeremy Pivnick's magnificent lighting creates effects that suggest both spotlighted interrogation rooms and the duskier regions of memory.

The cast is quite likable, and there's a nice, seductive chemistry between Fiscella's Philip and Leonard's Beth. But all of the actors have patches where they stumble while trying to make sense of their roles.

Tazel has the tricky task of conveying Azmera's complicated and partly contrived background -- which perhaps explains why her accent seems neither here nor there.

Borba is saddled with the worst of it. His manipulative bureaucrat is a mass of contradictions, which could be fascinating if we were only allowed to get a handle on him personally or professionally.

"Tranced" strives to captivate us with mystery, but it doesn't sufficiently earn our trust to put us under its spell.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Tranced'

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 (2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 27)

Ends: Feb. 3

Price: $25 to $65

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

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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