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STAGE REVIEW : ‘SCORCHERS’ PROVIDES LITTLE HEAT

There’s a line in David Beaird’s “Thais,” the second play in his program “Scorchers” at the Whitefire, where an actor manque in a saloon makes the distinction between an acting job and an acting part. A job is a job, but of the latter, he says, “You gotta reach down inside of you and pull a part out of yourself.”

That’s a line from a true theater person, and Beaird’s knowledge of Louisiana bayou country, where his two plays are set, partially reveals a rich culture and patois that’s been virtually undiscovered (though Tennessee Williams suggested some of it peripherally in “A Streetcar Named Desire”).

As self-contained one-acts, however, “Bayou La Teche” and “Thais” are problematic. The first deals with a bride (Summer Thomas) on her wedding night who is so terrified of consummation that her father (Leland Crook) has to come in to the marital bedroom to facilitate matters. In time we learn that her fear comes from the knowledge that her mother died in delivering her. But it’s a dubious fear (Don’t they know about contraception in Louisiana?), and her bridegroom Dolan (Brad Kepnick) is so ravenously horny that even a professional courtesan would be turned off.

This is not a sensitive treatment of a young man and woman fumbling their way toward each other. In the beginning, Beaird’s direction plays up their dilemma with the bounciness of farce. But the farcical style is soon abandoned and all that’s left is implausible resolution and a study of Pa’s Cajun idiom (which is a treat). Beaird stages a conjuring session between the bride and her mother, to release the young woman from her fear. Had that been better played, we might have seen a palpable catharsis and expiation. But Beaird opts for energy over nuance and moment, and his slam-bam rhythm is eventually wearing.

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“Thais” is set in a little saloon run by Bear (Jim Holmes), who feels acutely left out of things. Howler (Leland Crook) the actor boozes his sorrows away nightly at having failed in the Big Apple. Thais (Christine Kellogg) is a hooker who works out of the place, and Talbot (Robin Harlan) is the minister’s daughter whose father, brother and husband have all slept with Thais (father and husband the same day). This is stark commentary, but once again the playwright doesn’t explore the implications of his setup. His situation is theatrically overheated and, from a human standpoint, unfelt.

These plays were first produced in August (a third one-act has been dropped). Crook and Harlan are the only actors back from the original cast, but the revamping doesn’t appear to have done much good. The general level of acting falls into the uniquely Los Angeles category unofficially known as the “8-by-10 School,” where almost everyone is brightly telegenic but theatrically dim.

Writer-director Beaird, who is still a young man, had very good success with his Wisdom Bridge theater in Chicago. But his interest in making films has apparently, at least here, distracted him from the demands of the theater. There’s an industry-consciousness in his casting and in the kind of audience that was invited opening night. There’s a seductiveness about this balmy town, where getting by is as good as a disciplined trying hard, and the drive for success supersedes the devotion to art.

In “Scorchers,” Beaird’s situations are potentially rich and his Cajun world is something we could well see more of. But there’s no credible struggle in his people, at least the way we see them here, and the thing that might redeem them theatrically--humor--is sporadic and forced. “Scorchers” has no heat, and needs radical rethinking.

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Performances Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., at 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 990-2324. Runs indefinitely.


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