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STAGE REVIEW : <i> ANGST</i> AND PAIN OF TEENS IN ‘SUMMER’ AT THEATRE 40

A. R. Gurney’s “What I Did Last Summer,” having its West Coast premiere at Theatre 40, is a fond look back at the distress of being 14 years old in 1945, when Dad’s off in the war, Mom’s interest is at best divided and at worst rigidly authoritative, girls are more problematic than ever and the whole world looms with portent of misery and failure.

Actually, everyone is having a tough time of it, even though it’s summertime on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, near Buffalo. The war overseas has its domestic complement in the war against uncertainty at home--one of Gurney’s running comedic devices is to have most of the characters step forth individually at one time or another to confide, “This is really my play, if you want to know,” though it really isn’t, quite. It’s young Charlie’s play. In the lives of the self-absorbed, other people act as supernumeraries.

Memory plays, particularly if they lack notably dramatic or piquant incidents, require a perfection of tone to put the audience in the same mood as a reminiscing author. (Think of the magic of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” which is based on a selective exactness of detail). “What I Did Last Summer” has an air of fuzziness and secondhand recall (were the terms touching base, bad news and mooning bandied around in the ‘40s?), though it does remember a time when telling your mother to go to hell was sufficient grounds for dismissal from the family car. (Today, she’d wonder out loud where she went wrong.)

What flaws the play has in its recollection of a time of poignant anxiety are compounded by this production’s tepid performances. Under Charles Arthur’s direction, the cast isn’t on the same emotional wavelength, and the most crucial relationship, Charlie and Anna Trumbull, never catches fire.

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Anna is an older woman with an Indian background and mystical, eccentric ideas. (We don’t think she’s kidding when she tells Charlie “grass was invented by the English aristocracy to play games on.”) She’s an embodiment of the “creative” life, as opposed to the conventional bourgeois life rigorously expected of Charlie by his mother, and therefore Anna represents a kind of dark force of personal becoming. (Grace, the mother, is one of her failed students and is oddly bitter about her, as if Anna’s fuss about creative freedom were really a guise for the theft of other people’s souls.)

Dee Croxten plays Anna as though she were a talking statue, a grave, self-righteous seer burdened with prophecy. What’s her appeal for Charlie? If it’s mystical sex, Croxten’s too flinty; if it’s the intellectual clarity of a wise old head steering a frightened kid toward the confidence of self-realization, their exchanges are too cursory; if it’s sheer loneliness--as we’ve seen in the above-mentioned Capote play--we’re not led to feel it.

Though Jeff Harlan’s blow-dry look as Charlie is a small misdemeanor in Equity Waiver circles, where anyone is liable to bolt a show in favor of an “industry” job, it is symptomatic of his indifferent grasp of the character. Harlan can’t do anything about being too old for the role, but he could take a harder stab at that godawful period in one’s life when one’s confusion is so great that it’s comical.

Viveca Parker as Elsie, Charlie’s sister, and Stephanie Miller as Bonny, his girlfriend, are big and blunt and graceless, and, like Harlan and Kevin J. Riley’s Ted, Harlan’s Canadian friend, too old for their roles. (Riley doesn’t hazard a Canadian accent, but no one else tries the western New York-Canadian regional accent either, which is very specific and whose omission here is symptomatic of an overall indifference to character details.)

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Peggy Walton-Walker does a very good job as the well-intended, put-upon mother whose young womanhood is slipping away in hassling with the kids day in and day out, but it’s the same reedy-genteel housewife number we’ve seen Walton-Walker do in the past. At one point, when Elsie cries, “I just wish Daddy were here,” Grace replies, “So do I.” That soft utterance should slam into us like a small-bore bullet, but the line lies there. The performance has been used up.

Geoffrey Rinehart’s light design is exceptional, and high marks too for Kacy Treadway’s costumes and Jo McMasters’ austere set. Theatre 40’s design standards are always high; it’s one of the loveliest Equity Waiver spaces in Los Angeles.

Performances Thursdays though Sundays, 8 p.m., at 241 Moreno Drive (Beverly Hills High School), (213) 655-4137, through July 14.


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