Times Staff Writer

It's a little like listening to the Nixon tapes. Broken syntax. Interrupted ideas. Dangling statements, their completion implied instead of uttered. That's 95% of Jon Robin Baitz's "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," a darkish new comedy about Hollywood tax-shelter peddlers that opened Thursday at L. A. Theatre Works at the MET.

It's also that kind of play: fragmented, unfinished--the middle portion of an idea. Except for an occasional poetic lapse ("Little brown U.S. Government envelopes with little green slips . . . the color of elementary schools" is too fancy a phrase for a crass lawyer like Brook), the half-expressed language is keenly observed.

Baitz has a distinct voice. Not unlike David Mamet, to whom he is most easily compared, he knows how to listen and reproduce the sound of conversations. Some of his lines are brilliant--all the more so for being inextricably dependent on their context. There is a deeply ironic and oddly forgiving play in "Mizlansky/Zilinsky." Also a playwright impossible to dismiss. It's the rest that needs work--like the production.

As directed by Tony Abatemarco, these scenes in the lives of master swindlers are just not much fun--not nearly as much as they could be. The wheeling-and-dealing characters are there, the circumstances, the language. Tongue-in-cheek funny lines litter the stage.

Yet, in the mouths of this cast, the words fall to the floor. There's no bounce, no exuberance, no expansiveness. Where's the psychological cigar-chewing? Or the Gucci mentality? Where, for that matter, is the Beverly Hills look? All we have here are bargain-basement Beautiful People.

(Nina Ruscio designed the grim, rudimentary set, dimly lit by Karen Musser, and Lance Crush the uninspired--and undefining--costumes. If there's one thing this play needs in its trappings it's pastel colors--a high-tech, high-gloss sheen, as vulgar and conspicuous as its characters. These are, after all, the Randy Newman "My Life Is Good" people. The interior of restaurants should be neo-Trump's or 385 North, the offices Century City Tower-- any tower.)

Instead, the subdued tone of the sleaze at the MET remains underwhelming. And the company, headed by Al Ruscio as a moderately suave Mizlansky is too nice, too tempered, unshrill and unloud.

It's not that one would recommend one long strident shriek for "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," but surely more throb. More than a whisper.

The climate of worship for the almighty buck comes with its unhallowed moments of quintessential crudeness . . . and yet there's a disconcerting absence of urgency here, of the sort of contained pressure vital to the pace of these people and this play.

None of the actors achieve the necessary grubby grit, or the veneer under which it hides--not Hal Bokar as the separated partner Zilinsky, not Robert Hirschfield as a loutish wheeler-dealer named Briskin, not Charles Bouvier as his timid buddy Krassik, a mountain of a man who'd like to join the Big Boys but hasn't quite got the nerve.

Even the truly slippery ones (Gerrit Graham as lawyer Brook and James Devney as the Midwestern smoothie, Sandoval) don't adequately broadcast their malignancy. And one would welcome a nosier, more breathless Firnboch in Tony Pandolfo.

Abatemarco apparently chose restraint versus a more frontal, affronting approach. It diminishes the piece, particularly robbing its final moments of a fleeting but true resurrected joy. There, amid the litter of broken dreams, unconsummated deals and severed partnerships, is a genuine reminiscence that sparks a gesture of true caring between friends.

It's a masterstroke. Cynicism is not for Baitz. He loves these guys. And so, in a more extroverted interpretation, would we.

Performances at 649 N. Poinsettia Place in Hollywood run Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8 p.m., until Feb. 28 (213-827-0808).

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