Times Theater Critic

Lee is on the way to becoming an anthropologist. Her live-in, Mark, writes "leisure books"--i.e., porn. Their friend Crystal is a nurse in a mental hospital. Their other friend Eddie hangs out.

These are the four "normal" characters in Len Jenkin's "Five of Us" at Taper, Too. The abnormal character is Herman, who works for a messenger service and is not quite right in the head, although very verbal.

Herman lives in the next apartment to Lee and Mark. For a long time the play cuts between the two spaces. We watch Herman (Richard Frank) observe a forlorn bedtime ritual that includes the reading of one of Mark's books. Meanwhile, Lee (Annabella Price) stews about her departure later that night to Sri Lanka for a year's field work.

Will Mark (Darrell Larson) still be there when he gets back? He says he will, but will he really? The girls go out for a drink, and Crystal (Susan Barnes) is supportive. Meanwhile the guys stay in the apartment and goof around--which is Eddie's (Erich Anderson) middle name. Hey, man, let's do "Earth Angel"?

Up to now "Five of Us" is cooking, although on a fairly low flame. Herman is a bit too picturesque, but actor Frank is keeping him in line. You can't help liking Lee and her friends, who remind you of a hipper version of the "Laverne and Shirley" gang. (Anderson's especially good as the rowdy Eddie.) It does seem to be about time for something to happen, however.

Something happens. With the girls away, the guys decide--just like that--to burglarize Herman's apartment. With Herman at home, this leads to complications, rather drastic ones for him. But now Lee and Mark can fly off to Sri Lanka together. And Eddie may even walk Crystal home.

Jenkin's previous plays at the Taper ("The Death and Life of Jesse James," 1974, and "Kid Twist," 1979) were myths of a sort. So is "Five of Us"--a parable about four American "innocents" up against a real innocent, whom they eradicate in the usual handy American way, with no consequences.

There's no problem with the message. But a good parable holds together as a story. "Five of Us" has real problems here. It has credibility until Mark and Eddie suddenly decide to break into Herman's apartment. Then we start to ask questions.

Why weren't we told until just two minutes ago that Mark needs money? Why does Mark think that a retarded man who works for a messenger service necessarily has any money in his apartment? How can Mark be so sure that Herman isn't home? (The guys don't even knock on the door first to test this out.) Why doesn't Mark wait until Lee has left for Sri Lanka to try this little caper, just in case something should go wrong?

Jenkin's answer could be: Because Mark is dumb . We certainly come to discover that and see that it applies to all of them. They're not just morally obtuse, but also lacking in street smarts. Another answer could be that this is one of those random existential crimes that young men commit as a way of testing the universe.

What it feels like here, despite fine acting from Tony Abatemarco's company, is a playwright's random act. Certainly it snaps the play into line, like a pair of handcuffs clamped to a sidewalk drifter. No more meandering now. "Five of Us" marches in lock step right to its fatal end, which relies on an equally fortuitous stroke of fate to get poor Herman out of the picture.

In a sense this play was written in the very spirit of youthful American innocence that it dislikes. It dispenses with the boring old business of laying in motivations, of foreshadowing events: all that linear stuff. It assumes that the audience will believe everything it sees, both because the author writes so beguilingly and because he has something to say.

Each of those things applies to Jenkin and one would like to go all the way with him on "Five of Us." But it feels like an improvisation that decided to get serious about halfway through and forgot to go back to patch up the holes.

If the production design were a little less realistic, would it be easier to take the play on the level of a tall tale? Perhaps, but Leslie McDonald's New York apartment settings are so true that you can almost feel the radiators chilling after 11 o'clock. "Five of Us" takes you there--and abandons you. 'FIVE OF US Len Jenkin's play, at Taper, Too. Director Tony Abatemarco. Set Leslie McDonald. Costumes Susan Denison. Lighting Greg Sullivan. Sound Jon Gottlieb. With Richard Frank, Darrell Larson, Annabella Price, Susan Barnes, Erich Anderson. Plays Tue.-Sun. 8 p.m., with Sat. matinee at 2:30. Closes March 31. John Anson Ford Cultural Center, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East. 972-7654.

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