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Wednesday, Apr 2 1997
Love's Labor Lost
Eleemosynary. By Lee Blessing. Directed by Frank E. Reilly. Starring Laura Holliday, Jane Carmichael, and Margaret Schenck. Presented by the Chamber Theater at the Phoenix Theater, 301 Eighth St. at Folsom, through April 20. Call 346-3107.

The bookish title means "charitable," and the set is just as bookish, a stodgy Wonderland of mind-trappings, with wavy lines painted on the stage and stacks of giant reference books for furniture. The only prop is a white pair of wings on a stand. Dorothea is an old-fashioned eccentric intellectual who wears a cameo brooch at her neck and acts so insufferably vibrant she alienates her daughter, the uptight Artemis. After a long separation, Dorothea tracks down Artie after her granddaughter is born, and starts to call the baby "Echo." ("Mom, her name's Barbara. I named her three months ago." "Oh, but that was before I arrived.") The baby grows into a young echo of her grandmother, and their relationship excludes Artie. She takes a job in Europe, leaving Echo with Dorothea; and the absence of her mother becomes the girl's obsession.

Dealing with such baldly emotional material is not easy. Any play about "relationships" risks coming off as some kind of therapy session; but we all have relationships, whether we admit to being fucked up by them or not. All three women find it hard to act charitable, and Echo's problem is that she's a precocious brat. She grows up to be a talented speller; her best scene is a spelling bee where she wins with "eleemosynary." Between politely recited words she seethes and snorts like a bull, mock-boxing her rival and erupting with pride when she wins. Laura Holliday plays Echo at every stage of life -- a blubbering infant, a teething child, a pouting kid, and a teen-ager -- but this scene gives her broad talent the space it needs to flourish.

The other two are just as well cast: Jane Carmichael makes Dorothea the most consistently entertaining character by playing her with so much lightness and fervor; it's fun to see someone enjoying her job. And Artie, played by Margaret Schenck, is the play's source of heartbreak, the middle-aged woman who can't bring herself to feel the high spirits her daughter learns so blithely from Dorothea. Possibly because it isn't pushed as hard as the word "eleemosynary" (which gets repeated maybe once too often), Artie's alienation becomes the most important and powerful part of the play. The wings onstage are a symbol; but Dorothea is eccentric enough to strap them on her daughter and physically teach her to fly, and watching Artie puff her way up and down an imaginary mountain without gliding an inch is, if not sad on its own, at least a clue to what makes this play so strong.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Suburbia 3000. By D'Arcy Drollinger. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Starring Drollinger, Sarah Hauck, Laura LeBleu, and Elvis Herselvis. At the Somar Theater, 934 Brannan (at Ninth Street), through April 26. Call 995-4667.

Kitsch is appealingly egalitarian; anyone can recycle disposable kitchen gadgets and weekend wear into objets d'art, right? But like its cousin comedy, kitsch looks easy until it's done badly. The musical Suburbia 3000 isn't bad kitsch, but creator D'Arcy Drollinger hasn't mastered restraint either. The pop-culture iconography is gratuitous, his flimsy characters salvaged from a Nickelodeon yard sale: Rhoda, Jaime Sommers (the Bionic Woman), the Oscar Mayer hot dog, Mrs. Roper (the Three's Company landlady), and Betty Rubble. Drollinger forgets that if camp is to have some ironic value, it's not just what you pick, but how it's used and placed. In choosing not to explore its deeper, bleaker levels, Suburbia 3000 belongs not in the Rocky Horror Picture Show family of dark musical cabarets, but in the class of spinoffs and bastard sequels like Shock Treatment and Joanie Loves Chachi.

The premise: On the distant planet Suburbia, humanoids center their lives around TV transmissions from Earth. They look to Superman (delivered from deep space by Princess Lucy) to guide them to individuality and defeat the evil enemy, Cable. Superman (Drollinger), declared a messiah by the seers Larry, Moe, and Curly, is engaged to Princess Lucy. King Elvis and the Queen of Hearts (from Alice in Wonderland) send Sommers to the dark subcontinent to confirm the identity of Superman by a cheeseburger birthmark. Then Lucy's real lover, Charlie Brown, and her psychotic sister Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) turn up. Indeed, everyone but David Cassidy appears before the first act ends. This might seem clever and suggestive, but Drollinger's script is like an undergraduate term paper: It doesn't get to the point before pages of introductory filler. The political distinction between cable and free-access television is fuzzy, and the muddled distinction between television and Suburban life is heavy-handed.

The story is there to mark the time between Drollinger's aerobic musical numbers. The tunes are infectious, but limited by nonsensical lyrics like, "Personality/ Lay your hands on me." An enthusiastic Up With People-style chorus belts songs into standing microphones set around the stage telethon style. In the final number, "Weakness," Drollinger delivers his great thesis: TV is dumb. Compounding the hell of imprisonment in this parallel universe, the citizens of Suburbia are limited to the vocabulary of their original television personalities. But rather than pressing the absurdism of sitcom language, Drollinger falls back on tittering references to thrusting, ejaculation, and words containing "cock" to keep his audience entertained.

-- Julie Chase

Take It With You
The Royal Family. By George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Albert Takazauckas. Starring DeAnn Mears, Valerie Leonard, and Elizabeth Eidenberg. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through April 20. Call 749-2228.

Did you know that in some theaters the audience claps before the performance? No, this isn't some postmodern pretension designed to upset our notion of chronological time, but the conventional fanfare of opening night at ACT, the most well-established theater company in the city. At the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare invokes applause as a means to break the spell of theater, but at the opening of The Royal Family it was as if the audience were trying to cast a spell of optimism. Unfortunately, the cast of The Royal Family could not live up to the adoration of its courtiers. This revival of a mildly successful 1927 Broadway satire about a crazed family of actors suffers from a squishy script, insipid direction, and -- with few exceptions -- overblown performances.

Written by Algonquin-circle collaborators George S. Kaufman (You Can't Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Edna Ferber (Cimarron, Giant), the play deserves shelf space in the archives marking the collaborative chemistry leading to Dinner at Eight and Stage Door. But onstage in 1997 it smells musty and its wit is toothless. The story revolves around the high jinks of the Cavendish family, a collection of melodramatic, self-involved actors who sleep late, make lots of declarative speeches in orotund stage English, and get into harmless trouble. The family is based on the Barrymores; at the time of the play's writing, it's possible that their tony bohemianism warranted such broad theatrical strokes. But in the ACT's production the endless raised eyebrows and shocked my-mys produced by the family's idiosyncrasies are crushingly square. The play has one strength: In the matrilineal trio of retired grandmother Fanny, Broadway star Julie, and granddaughter ingenue Gwen, the playwrights explore the predicaments of working women in potentially provocative ways. Gwen chooses marriage and motherhood only to lose interest and accept an irresistible role; her baby, she says, is "too young to notice." Fanny Cavendish, whose ill health has not stopped her from planning a nationwide tour, explains to her granddaughter, "Marriage isn't a career, it's an incident." Though Julie is lionized by her public, she's a classic caretaker, constantly cleaning up after her family's little disasters.

What should if nothing else have made for decent screwball material is doomed by both the script's lack of overall wit and Albert Takazauckas' contrived sense of pacing. Specifically, what Kaufman in his script might have intended as bits of textures, asides, or counterpoints are almost all trotted out for careful presentation to the audience and accompanying mugging by the actors. This stretches the play out to a massive three-hour length. But nothing is as bad as the acting. What is supposed to be a blue-chip cast sends the show to new lows, making the very premise of the play ludicrous. How can we believe the Cavendish clan can act when the actors here beat their thespianism into the ground? DeAnn Mears, Valerie Leonard, and Elizabeth Eidenberg as the three Cavendish women all suffer from the same cliched affectations and hyperbolic expressivity. Against this backdrop of overwrought emotion, Sharon Lockwood, who plays Kitty Dean, the no-talent in-law, must outdo the others to prove just how bad an actor she is, resulting in a tortured and painful game of theatrical chicken. These actors badly impersonating actors became so intolerable I began watching the mercifully understated maid (Linda Hoy) and butler (Hector Correa). By the time Julie cried out, "I'm going to live life, and leave imitation behind!" I could barely suppress a snarled, "We should be so lucky."

Despite being well-loved by tourists, well-subscribed by high society, and well-funded by city and corporation alike, ACT is all too often just mediocre. The plush foyer of the Geary Theater soothes with its medley of textures and color; the impressive biographies of the out-of-town actors inspire confidence; the opulent set promises to be a place of professionalism if not unmitigated inspiration. But at the end of the evening, the crowd bolts for the exits, and you sit there with a sense of dismay and a haunting question: How can so many scarce arts dollars be so misappropriated?

-- Carol Lloyd


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