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STAGE REVIEW : NEW HEROINE PESCOW GIVES ‘ROMANTIC’ A LIFT

Times Theater Critic

It seems strange to say that “Isn’t It Romantic” is only just now coming into its own, after its long run at the L.A. Stage Company West. It’s true, though. The reason is Donna Pescow, who is now playing Janie Blumberg, Wendy Wasserstein’s betwixt-and-between heroine.

Janie is in her 20s: bright, funny, disorganized, a little on the plump side, not sure who she’s supposed to be. She and her college pal Harriet (Carol Potter) have made a pact that they’ll have New York at their feet in at least six months, but it seems to be taking longer than that.

It’s also difficult to think of yourself as a liberated woman when your mother and father are forever letting themselves into your apartment just to make sure that things are all right. The worst confusion regards a handsome, sensitive, funny young doctor (Michael Holden) who is everything that a Janie Blumberg could want . . . and who calls her “Monkey.”

Christine Estabrook, the first Janie, made her an adorable girl with cute problems. Pescow’s Janie is a real girl with real problems. She’s a bit of a klutz, a bit of a clown, never quite on top of the situation--and it worries her. Something in her wants to be taken care of. It’s hard for her to change the lock on her door and to stand up to her young man.

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But there’s also something immovable about her. Janie is going to leave those crates unpacked in the living room until it is time, in the universal scheme of things, to unpack them. Thoreau--if not her mother--would have understood.

Janie’s need to be nurtured versus her determination to set her own timetable is the crux of the play, and Estabrook delineated the problem amusingly. But Pescow lives it. Even Janie’s overalls look truer now, not an “outfit,” but the kind of after-school tomboy stuff that she feels most honest in.

Not only does Pescow bring us closer to Janie, she brings us closer to the other characters. Estabrook’s Janie was a winner. Pescow’s Janie has spunk, but could lose. We can see why her folks might be anxious about her and why her young doctor has decided to force the issue of marriage: Leave it to Janie and the issue might never go unpacked. Without losing laughs--its genre remains light comedy--"Isn’t It Romantic” is richer in human concern now.

Most of the other players are also new, each bringing a fresh slant to his character. For instance, Michael Holden makes Janie’s young doctor more vulnerable than did the previous occupant of the role, Michael Lembeck--there’s even less of a hint of the enslaving male. But he, too, is following his timetable, and Janie is going to have to choose.

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There are two mothers in the piece, Janie’s and her friend Harriet’s. Mitzi McCall is less formidable than Joan Copeland as Janie’s mother, but it’s easier to see her as Janie 30 years ago. On the other hand Jeane Byron makes Harriet’s mother, a career woman, even more formidable than Jo De Winter did. There’s a real edge when she and Harriet get down to cases about whether a woman can have it all, not an abstract issue for her.

Not all the cast changes enrich the show. I missed Anne Lange’s air of subliminal panic as Harriet; the new Harriet, Carol Potter, is a bit too in charge of herself. I also missed Jerry Lanning’s extreme self-regard as Harriet’s married lover, Paul. Fred Willard makes passes at it, but the results aren’t nearly as funny.

Barney Martin is still Janie’s pooped father, and how naturally Pescow snuggles against him on the couch. The fellows who shift the scenery still seem to think that they are characters in the play, one of director Gerald Gutierrez’s wittiest touches. The invisible voices on Janie’s answering machine still crack you up, particularly that of the Princess of Boredom, Cynthia Peterson (Meryl Streep.)

And, with that Bobby Short music, yes--it’s still romantic. This show is supposed to close June 30, but why don’t we keep it around for the summer? (213) 859-2644.

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‘ISN’T IT ROMANTIC’ Wendy Wasserstein’s play, at L.A. Stage Company West. Director Gerald Gutierrez. Set design Andrew Jackness. Costume design Ann Emonts. Lighting James F. Ingalls. Sound Scott Lehrer. Music coordinator Jack Feldman. Dance sequences Susan Rosenstock. Production stage manager Arthur Gaffin. With Donna Pescow, Carol Potter, Michael Holden, Mitzi McCall, Barney Martin, Jeane Byron, Fred Willard, Xander Berkeley. Voices: Morgan Fairchild, Timmy Geissler, Angela Lansbury, Ellis Rabb, John Ritter, Meryl Streep, Jerry Zaks. Plays Tuesdays- Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 859-2644, TTY (213) 859-2645.


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