A basket for "Donations" blocked the refreshment table at the opening-night reception for Arnold Schulman's "Sleeping Ugly." The Santa Monica Playhouse has evidently taken fundraising advice from the Third Street Promenade buskers. But as this quirky, inventively staged world premiere demonstrates, the 50-year-old theater knows how to squeeze the maximum entertainment value out of each dollar. You have to wonder what they could do with a few more.
Can’t afford a fancy set? Use actors as scenery. Six chorus members in black, with cute red shoes, hold charming, cartoony cutout drawings by Timothy Chadwick to signify their transformations into lamps, doors, tables, couches and even a toilet. When they are rivers, they ripple; when they are fires, they flicker. (Serena Dolinsky coached their movements.) With their grimaces and shrugs they comment on the action throughout.
No orchestra? Put one of your artistic directors (Evelyn Rudie) on a balcony with a drum, a cup and a spoon. (Linn Yamaha Hirschman designed the sound.)
All of this clever business, lovingly directed by the playhouse's other artistic director, Chris DeCarlo, might distract from a more focused drama, but “Sleeping Ugly” is playful, incoherent fun. Writer Schulman, now 86, is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplays (“Love With the Proper Stranger,” “Goodbye, Columbus”). He was a playwright first, though, and maybe even all along: His son found a draft of “Sleeping Ugly” in his house and submitted it on his behalf.