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STAGE REVIEW : ‘RICH FULL LIFE’ PREMIERE AT L.A. THEATRE CENTER

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Mayo Simon’s “A Rich Full Life” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center is the most nihilistic new play on American domestic life since Albee’s “The Sandbox” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It has its fascinating elements, not the least of which is that no one is dealing in a major way with the issues Simon raises. And it’s often touching and funny. But a lot of women are going to be enraged by it, and not without justification.

We first meet Doris, a woman in her early 40s, as she’s meditating on why she walked out of her California condo life, and her husband and two kids. Doris has made her modern woman’s Declaration of Independence, and recalls what Nora from “A Doll’s House” has told her husband about why she’s not fit to be a good mother, the manifesto Doris has adopted as her own: “I must try to educate myself and you are not the man to help me in that. I must do that for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now.”

Now Doris is back for a visit after two years away. She has the demeanor of a professional career woman--the close-cut, shaped hair style, the white blouse and dark skirt, a briefcase full of Important Papers having to do with all those people in Pittsburgh who need her indispensable services as a marriage counselor.

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But something about the way she clutches that case tells us there’s more to her anxiety than facing up to the possible hostility of her ex-husband and kids, and her former neighbors. And beyond all her brave, cheery words about one’s sacred duties to one’s self that transcend duty to family, we learn that she’s very nearly down and out.

Simon has a lot of fun sending up the cliches of the modern search for self-fulfillment, where the illusion of enlightenment and freedom is betrayed by the grim totalitarian vocabulary of pop psychology and women’s magazines’ phrases (Doris is forever saying things like, “Everyone has needs and should learn to express them,” and, after seeing her daughter have an argument with her son, Bob, “I believe Alice will need some grief therapy to help her get in touch with her feelings of loss.”)

But Doris’ failure here is one of the first examples of Simon’s black humor turning sour. When Bob writes her a note saying, “I love you Mommy,” she responds by saying, “Actually, it makes me just a little bit uneasy. It’s obvious Bob hasn’t worked out his feelings about me.” It’s one of the first instances we see of Doris’ immense, corrosive fear and confusion, which only deepen in the course of the play, until, toward the end, she has one more dewy little soliloquy about searching that finally collapses into the realization that, instead of finding herself, she’s only found her nothingness.

That’s the problem of “A Rich Full Life.” In first-rate drama, characters clash at the top of their form, even if the form is evil. In “A Rich Full Life,” Doris is systematically undermined by the playwright until, at the end, she’s a cut above being a bag lady. There’s a difference between a tragic fall and a pathetic end, and Simon doesn’t make the distinction. Doris has been a fool all along. We can see that every time someone tries to touch her, whether it’s her husband or her children, or even her raunchy neighbor, that she’s a terrified human being who shields herself behind the cliches of self-determination.

By subverting her as thoroughly as he does, Simon also manages either to avoid or denounce altogether the very real and painful questions men, and especially women, are raising about the need to balance out the responsibility to one’s self with one’s responsibility to one’s family and society.

Your reviewer found much of “A Rich Full Life” entertaining and smoothly paced, and the question of Doris’ wretchedness redeemed (at least at first) by the depiction of everyone else around her as being a good deal emptier. Suburbia, the one-time American dream, really is a well-tended wasteland here, in which everyone is well fed and dressed and miserably, ruinously unhappy. Too, Lois Nettleton works very well toward showing us the piquancy of Doris’ absurd self-preoccupation. A twist of the mouth here, an overeager gleam in the eye there tell us a great deal of what we need to know about what’s inside this woman.

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Peter Haskell plays Ted, Doris’ tall nice-looking non-entity of a husband; Frank McCarthy is the boorish neighbor Neil; Rhoda Gemignani is his genteel-crass, sawtooth-voiced wife; Rebecca Patterson and Malcolm Danare play the kids, and all of them ably fulfill Simon’s views on modern middle-class sterility and empty-headed ugliness. It’s a mistake to suggest, as happens here, that Doris’ life is a modern parallel to Nora’s. Nora walked after she found the steel in herself. Doris ran because she couldn’t face anything at all, and never does. The title “A Rich Full Life” is no doubt intended as an irony, but the play is a cruel joke.

Alan Mandell directs.

‘A RICH FULL LIFE’ A play by Mayo Simon, directed by Alan Mandell. With Lois Nettleton, Rhoda Gemignani, Frank McCarthy, Peter Haskell, Rebecca Patterson and Malcolm Danare. Set and lighting design by Russell Pyle. Costumes by Nicole Morin. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Diane White, producer. Donald David Hill, production stage manager. Performances Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., (213) 627-5599. Ends Dec. 15.

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