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'Ending' is a promising beginning

January 15, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

There's something condescending about the term "woman's picture," as though the work isn't inherently deserving of male attention. But surely there are men who don't mind being dragged to, say, the latest Diane Keaton movie, even when the reviews are numbingly bad, just to see this actress light up the screen with her oddball radiance.

The same pool of guys probably won't object to making the theatrical acquaintance of Brooke Bloom, the delightfully offbeat star of Sarah Treem's "A Feminine Ending," which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory in a winning production directed by Timothy Douglas. This by turns tangy and trite dramatic comedy about a young woman torn between a marriage proposal to an up-and-coming pop singer and her own plan of becoming a classical composer blooms largely because Bloom is so terrific in the central role.

The play, written by a 27-year-old dramatist who's still working the sitcom kinks out of her style, is divided into musical movements. The first is marked by monologues in which Amanda, the would-be female Chopin, informs us that she has become "increasingly aware of the tyranny of gender."

After brooding over the way a piece of music is said to have a "masculine" or "feminine" beginning, depending on the "emphasis or 'stress' on the first beat," Amanda acknowledges that she's adopting a feminine approach to her story. Easing into her subject, she tells us first about her relationship to the perplexingly singular oboe, "the Hamlet of instruments," given to her by her mother, Kim (a marvelous Amy Aquino), who wants her daughter to reap the benefits of her sacrifices by "becoming something totally extraordinary."

That ambition, which has since been funneled into the writing of symphonies, is challenged by Jack (Peter Katona), the "hot mess" who's on a fast track to iTunes mega-downloads and YouTube renown. In the whirlwind of his rising fame, he gets down on bended knee and offers Amanda a diamond ring. (His manager would prefer him to have a child out of wedlock, but he's more a traditional romantic.)

Outraged, Kim promptly summons Amanda to New Hampshire for a stern talking-to. How dare she betray their mutual dream for a man who's going to turn her brilliant daughter into a first wife? To balance things out, Kim decides to leave her husband (Alan Blumenfeld). "We cannot both be housewives," she snaps to Amanda.

To cope with her angst, Amanda rekindles a romance with Billy (Jedadiah Schultz), her high school sweetheart, who wouldn't mind finally capitalizing on their chaste adolescent courtship. A laid-back guy who hasn't left their hometown, Billy manages to look sexy in the U.S. Postal Service uniform he wears even when supposedly off-duty at night. He seduces Amanda not with memories of their past but with a fancy poststructural analysis of gender politics that he picked up before dropping out of college.

It's such unexpectedly wry details that make Treem's rather cliche-ridden plot so enjoyable. The playwright has a sense of humor that brings to mind a budding Wendy Wasserstein and a liberated sense of form that evokes a junior Paula Vogel.

The play could be faulted for lapses in realism, but it's not meant to be a documentary portrait of an artist as a young woman. It's more a sprightly theatrical diary that moves between reflection and broad illustration. Yes, there's something self-indulgent about this sort of privileged character, a graduate of a prestigious conservatory who's seemingly had every upper-middle-class advantage, bemoaning the challenges of her self-actualization. But as the media's ongoing assault on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton makes clear, a smart and determined woman still faces a treacherous array of cultural obstacles.

Douglas' nimble staging keeps the drama moving quickly on Tony Cisek's flexible set, which looks pretty with its blue, windowpane-filled background, even if it doesn't particularly suggest the play's New York and New Hampshire locales.

A lot could have gone tonally wrong with this production. What's most impressive is the way it doesn't lose sight of the satiric and emotional stakes even when encouraging actors to attack their roles with farcical aplomb.

And don't think just because the title is "A Feminine Ending" that the men are upstaged. The cast is uniformly fine, with Katona and Schultz both making sweetly flawed love interests.

But it's Bloom who entrances as the conflicted young woman pegged from her early teens as the girl mostly likely to creatively succeed. Forced to contend with the complexities and compromises of adulthood, her appealingly neurotic character considers each contrapuntal note in a story that, like her playwright's own, is unfolding with tremulous expectation and excitement.



'A Feminine Ending'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Jan. 27

Price: $20 to $62

Contact: (714) 708-5555


Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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