The only trait shared by "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Botticelli" is that both of them are appropriate for an outdoor site, such as the Theatricum Botanicum, where they make up the evening bill.
By far the longer of the two, "Suddenly Last Summer" is set in a tangled, semi-tropical garden (and on a porch that looks out on the garden). Placing it in a theater that's aptly named Botanicum is smart. The indigenous scenery evokes a sense of the beauty and wildness of nature that well complements the Tennessee Williams text, and it helps keep our eyes interested in a play that otherwise might suffer from an excess of long descriptions of offstage events.
Not that Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall, as the domineering mother and the companionable cousin of the late Mr. Venable, have any difficulty seeing us through those lengthy speeches. Despite the presence of three directors (Ellen Geer, Kate Geer and Irene Silbert), this production is carefully constructed to extract the juice from this overripe play. Eileen Cooley's lights are an essential aid, and a circular gazebo (sets by Mark Thomas and Michael Andersenn) comes in handy too.
Terrence McNally's "Botticelli" is set even farther out in the wild--the jungles of Vietnam. But instead of using the Botanicum greenery as a backdrop, bushes are brought onto center stage. Still, the sounds of the Topanga insects add verisimilitude to this brief sketch about two of the best and brightest (Thad Geer and Michael Barker), who play a cultural trivia game as they ambush an enemy soldier.
Performances are at 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., through Aug. 9; (213) 455-3723.
'OLD WOMAN BROODS'
As a vision of the collapse of civilization, "The Old Woman Broods," at the Off-Main Street Theatre, has its moments. In the first act, a mountain of trash begins to plunge through the windows of a cafe. In the second act, as war rages on the periphery of the stage, beach bunnies read romance novels and a barber cuts the hair of a dandy who sits atop a mechanical rocking horse.
Considering the size and resources of this stage, production designer Charles Duncombe created quite a spectacle. Assisting were costumer Molly O'Leary, who concocted bizarre plastic outfits for a parade of living mannequins who sashay through the cafe, as well as lighting designer Kevin Graves and trash sculptor Christine Nemcik.
Once we look beyond the poses, though, this American premiere of a 1968 Polish play, by Tadeuz Rozewicz, hasn't much to offer.
The main problem is the title character (Judith Foreman Lyons), who carries a heavier symbolic weight in the mind of the playwright (or perhaps in the translation of Adam Czerniawski) than she does in the theater. Unlike the other characters, she's conscious enough of the sorry state of the world to brood about it, but her remarks are sententious. The overaged-madonna imagery, complete with messianic offspring at the end of the play, becomes terribly thick.
Lyons has an imperious voice, but Philip Granger's waiter is occasionally difficult to understand. Directors Duncombe and Frederique Michel split up the visual focus of the show too frequently; the device soon loses its punch.
Performances are at 208 Pier Ave., Santa Monica, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m.; (213) 399-9382.
'THE SAFETY OF HOME'
The second of four Stephen Feinberg one-acts at the Powerhouse, "The Safety of Home," lends its title to the entire package. But it's the first of the four that remains in the memory.
The program begins with "The Happy Worker," a nifty encounter between an egregiously paternalistic boss and one of his lackeys, who has the temerity to ask why he--and his father before him--spend their days digging a hole more than a mile into the earth. He appreciates the generous paychecks, but could he please have a clue as to what it's all about?
It's a funny, tantalizing piece that reaches gently into realms beyond its own--something the other three plays don't begin to do. Larry Marko and Jerold Pearson handle its rhythms well, though Pearson's hangdog mannerisms become tiresome as he continues doing them in two of the evening's other entries.
The program continues with the title play, an overacted farce about a marital triangle. Marginally better is "The Higher Laws," featuring fine work by James Keane as the caretaker of an island estate.
The final piece is the nadir of the night. "The Arabs," which Feinberg co-wrote with actor Pearson, is a long, crass confrontation between an American and an Arab, both of whom verge on lunacy, in that most hackneyed of locations, a train station. The final tableau is unbearably false and drawn out.
Feinberg and James Stephens directed. Performances are at 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through July 27; (213) 455-3536.