James McClure is our American Alan Ayckbourn.
This is not necessarily a compliment. When Ayckbourn’s good, he’s very, very good (“Taking Steps”), and when he’s bad, he’s terrible (“Absent Friends”).
McClure, on the other hand, is never terrible, only lighter or more transparent than he means to be. His play “Thanksgiving,” second offering of the Pacific Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse, falls in the range of transparent to good. Its second act has plenty to say and says it with a lunatic grace. Trouble is, you have to swim through the first act to get there. Upstream.
Kate (Melinda Deane) is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for close friends at her parents’ home in suburban New Jersey. The guests include a long-married couple, Rob (Troy Evans) and Eileen (Belita Moreno); a newly separated couple, Winston (Randy Oglesby) and Vanessa (Nancy Stafford), and the man of Kate’s dreams, James (Mark Harelik), an actor.
Winston, who still loves Vanessa, thinks he’d like to make it with Kate, who knows she wants to make it with James, who tries hard to make it with Vanessa, who isn’t sure she wants to make it with anyone, but allows, in a burst of unparalleled insight (to the self-centered James): “I could want to make it with you--and you could want to make it with you.”
Amid these neurotic disorders, stuffy insurance man Rob (“Everyone can’t be Zorba the Greek; somebody’s got to wear a coat and tie”) is convinced that his life, anyway, is in place.
Never mind Eileen’s lousy temper and odd habit of parrying simple questions with traditional Chinese proverbs (“you have to be a traditional Chinese to understand them”). To Rob, it’s just the cultural fallout of last year’s trip to China. But, before the evening’s over, there’s fallout of a different sort. The inscrutable Eileen, he discovers, has been after enrichment of another kind, and it’s going to take more than proverbs to mend this traditional marriage.
Sound like “La Ronde”? In fact, it’s closer to Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests,” with Act I set in a bare living room and Act II just outside in the garden. These lovers, calling out to and almost never hearing one another in the New Jersey night, are also the lovers of the Forest of Arden, their anguish lightly brushed by a modern, invisible Puck.
If the suggestion of a happy ending follows a bit of facile moralizing, so be it. McClure handles it gracefully, and the actors--mostly veterans of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, the Solvang/Santa Maria Theaterfest and Denver Center Theatre Company--make it pay off.
It takes a while, though. Harelik’s vanity as James is monumentally unself-conscious from the start, and his confidence only slightly shaken by the end. Oglesby is the compleat--and completely irresistible--nebbish as Winston. But Deane and Stafford need to listen more to the lines they speak and believe them rather than toss them off like so much confetti.
Moreno is an expert with the glacial deadpan, melting it down to mellow by the play’s boiling point. But it is Evans who has the toughest struggle with Rob’s often insurmountable lines and it is greatly to his credit that he becomes the play’s most affecting character by the play’s upbeat end as, drained and glassy-eyed, this weary bunch finds a glimmer of hope in the receding moonlight.
That moonlight too frequently looks like broad daylight in Ilya Mindlin’s unmasked lighting, and John Arnone’s cleverly convertible set doesn’t always withstand the company’s assaults without a telltale flutter. If that’s a redefinition of “waver” theater, one forgives it. The play, flawed but endearing, is ultimately the thing in this flawed but winning production.
Performances at 3116 2nd St. in Santa Monica run Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. until Sept. 1, (213) 392-6529.