VOODOO MAGIC'S INTERMINABLE SPELL

Craig Richard Nelson, as the music critic in Frank Gagliano's "In the Voodoo Parlour of Madame Laveau," is found to be impotent and doomed to the voodoo curse not just for the scathing notices but for the ones that praised the mediocre. It's a sure bet that he'll be a goner, sooner or later. Critics--we can almost hear Gagliano muttering--bah!

At this point in the drama, the audience may be muttering something else. Such as, "Get this curse over with already." Waiting for a curse to drop on characters shouldn't get us into that kind of mood. Not if we care.

At the Ensemble Studio Theatre, we're not really allowed to. Fran Bennett's Marie Laveau whines and moans her way through her eerie lair, wishing she were some other kind of voodoo priestess--not as "theatrical," or something like that. In the meantime, she has to keep her act going to the end, taking Nelson and Molly Cameron's frustrated opera singer through a quasi Grand Guignol of the soul, or something like that.

Trying desperately to get a pulse on what Gagliano and director Lawrence Peters have wrought, you almost think that this is what Gagliano believes critics--and, apparently, earth-based spiritualists and sopranos--deserve. Real hell.

Or something like that.

One person's hell is another person's play, and the combination of Bennett's interminable explications, Nelson's spineless defensiveness and Cameron's artificial character transformation just play wrong, and more wrong as the minutes tick by. My eyes wandered to the magical work of Sarita Vendetta's design, Pam Lewis' costumes and Susan Hallman's lights. This is what a voodoo den in turn-of-the-century New Orleans must have looked like: a cave of madness, where logic is vanquished. Watching this show has it all over listening to it.

Performances at 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 29 (466-2916).

'KATZ'

If you want to see what L.A.-style showcase theater is all about, see "Katz." As in Phyllis. She and her merry band of supporting comics, Jim Doughan, David Maples, Cathy Shambley and Gloria Vassy , are ready to entertain, but their eyes are set for bigger things than the Groundlings Theatre. That's loud and clear. And that's not good.

Katz is at the center of things, jumping from one neurotic modern female character to another (her quartet makes fun of the time her costume changes take, or fills in the gaps with its own solo showcasing). Katz mocks her women, especially her turn as little, encyclopedia-mind Phyllis, but she likes them--even the woman who's going through a change of species from human to parrot. Still, this attitude is a given in a parade-of-comic-bits show like this. What's needed is a distinctive wrinkle.

Katz's singing is almost always on the mark (there's a lot of it, and the cast is just as able, though the backup band can't play rock 'n' roll). Her comic intelligence comes to the surface especially during the improvisational segments. But the sum of it feels like an exposition rather than a show, as if to reveal to friends how slickly they've got it down. For every comment Katz tosses off about our culture's shallow materialism, she has a dozen revealing outfits and well-wrought coifs. The messages are lost in this three-dimensional Variety ad.

Performances at 7307 Melrose Ave., Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Runs indefinitely (934-9700).

'WHITE BREAD'

Playwright/director Glenn Hopkins puts much stock in audience participation. Nearly all his plays have some device for pulling members of the audience in, even if they're kicking and screaming.

The device at the Powerhouse for his latest, "White Bread," is a wedding. We're the guests. There's the groom (Brent Pfaff). Thanks for coming to our wedding. Nice folks--hope they keep it up for marriage.

No such luck. Craig and Darlene (Jeanine Ward), it turns out, are getting hitched because she keeps getting pregnant. How many abortions can a 17-year-old take? Oh, and they love each other a lot. Craig's Dad (William Haskins), smoking his lungs out, takes it all in stride, but Craig's Mom (Bette Carraway) informs Darlene why she can't wear a white wedding dress.

Hopkins is great on all the countless petty comments that make up family conversation. In fact, if "White Bread" were stripped bare to just family talk, we might have a truly new kind of play on our hands. As it is, narrative and exposition form a ball and chain on this work, forcing it into the Decaying American Family genre. Craig's fall from Darlene to cocaine is padded with scenes from his childhood and sent through the gratuitous stylistic prism of cross-cutting back and forth through time.

Hopkins notes the Pinter ("Betrayal") influence in his program comments, but what Pinter employed was reverse linearity. "White Bread" is a messy stew of the mind, which is probably right for Craig, but not right for the production to pick up on.

Lighting cues cut in on the actors (or vice versa), and there's not enough invention to fill in the nearly bare set. And Haskins looks at least 30 years too young for Dad, Henry Harris' hippy brother looks like a faker (he's better as the Christian fundamentalist he grows into) and Pfaff never looks truly strung out. We don't believe it anymore than the happy ending. An audience can participate only so much.

Performances at 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays, 8:30 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday (392-6529 or 399-0011).

'THE DOWNSIDE RISK'

Traveling salesman plays can be interesting, but only if the playwright knows that Arthur Miller didn't close the book on the subject, and that the audience might not be up on the lingo of territorial tradesmen.

Bill Svanoe seems to have forgotten these with his irretrievably boring "The Downside Risk," at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. His hero, Mike (John Dennis Johnston, a remarkably lifeless actor), is supposed to cover his expanded sales territory, know the big fish from the little, keep his family in corn flakes and Nikes, repair the damage done by the previous rep and keep his suits pressed. Johnston's Mike has no problem juggling all these. Where's the drama?

Technical banter about product price increases and margins strike our ears as atmospheric jargon to heighten the realism rather than the plot fulcrum that they are. Everything here, from Joan Darling's direction to what is surely the clumsiest design of Russell Pyle's career, sags like the jowls on a salesman after a red-eye.

Performances at 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends June 29 (465-0070).

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