Times Theater Critic

Say what you like about Dr. Ruth, she's got a relaxed perspective on her subject. "The History of Fear"--John Kostmayer's new play at the Victory Theatre--approaches sex as earnestly as the Victorians avoided it.

Laurie O'Brien and Charles Boswell play a nice young couple who have been dating, but who haven't , er, established a relationship. Tonight looks like the night. But each is scared. He's had periods of impotence. She was raped by her father.

Both must face-down their family ghosts before being free enough to love, and that is the action of the play. We go back and forth between his history and hers, with the ghosts (in mime makeup) helping them play out the moments where they acquired their hangups.

The final scene, with all the ghosts kibitzing as our lovers try to get close, struck me as rather jolly--rather like a cocktail party at Madame Arcati's. There's also a nice scene where Boswell realizes that his authoritarian father (Robert Sampson) liked him all along.

Elsewhere, our lovers and their ghosts reenact scenarios that may well be archetypes, but that play like cliches. From "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours" to "You didn't just rape me, Daddy. You robbed me of my childhood" we have had it all before, in just these words.

There is one novelty. Toward the end, Walters stops the charades and asks the women if the audience to raise their hands if any of them has ever had an experience with a banana. It is a moment of sharing that mixed audiences may not be ready for. Thankfully, Walters goes back to being inhibited after her father (Sampson again) croons an threatening chorus of "Rockabye Baby" from the wings.

"Rockabye Baby" is used to designate the childhood scenes and a lurid red light comes on when the hero and heroine face moments of intense truth. Nothing in Maria Gobetti's production is unexpected. Meanwhile, you know our lovers will get together eventually--catharsis is a given in psychodrama. So you wait it out, noticing the odd color mix of the costumes, some garish, some blended to D. Martyn Bookwalter's wood-toned set. Did the designer of record, Barbara Cox, really pick them all out?

Kostmayer proved his worth as a playwright in "On the Money," but "The History of Fear" is a lugubrious examination of material that every listener to talk-show psychology has been exposed to over and over again, without the particulars that make talk-show psychology interesting. It will be at the Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, through March 16. (213) 851-3771.

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