Times Theater Critic

Much will be forgiven "Tamer of Horses" because it plays.

William Mastrosimone's new play at the Los Angeles Theatre Center suggests one of those TV movies in which a complex societal issue (child abuse, abortion, AIDS) is disposed of in two hours, with time for commercials.

Mastrosimone's proposition is that a vicious street kid (Esai Morales) can be turned around in a matter of months by a father figure (Joe Morton) who knows the uses of "tough love."

Does he prove it? Not really. But because it's a proposition that an audience would like to believe, and because Mastrosimone writes with such vigor, and because Morales and Morton are super performers, something does happen on that stage.

Mastrosimone is an interesting writer. Even when his scenes come out of left field--as when Morton's wife (Lynn Whitfield) suddenly declares that she wants to have a baby--the actor is always given plenty of stuff to play. This writer isn't interested in the play of indirect action.

That's refreshing in the modern theater, but it also lends Mastrosimone's plays an air of manipulation and unseriousness--as if big speeches and high-pitched confrontations were all he really cared about. A playwright needs to care about such things, but they aren't enough for truly satisfying drama, the kind where one thinks about the characters afterward.

How, for instance, do we know that young Hector's ethical and emotional breakthrough (caused by one magical reading of "The Iliad") won't wear off the minute he leaves his new-found home and hits the streets? We have to take it on faith.

Actually, Mastrosimone's characters cease to exist the minute the actors come out for their bows--we're thinking about them and the pleasure they gave us. "Actors" here means the two men in the company, not poor Whitfield, who does what she can with a role that doesn't have any particular reason to be there: This is a two-character play in disguise.

But Morton and, especially, Morales are terrific. Morton is calm and rational, not about to lose his equanimity in the face of this wild kid from the streets. He also has the relentlessness of the born teacher, and the exhilaration when he has scored a victory.

He wins the battle of the blackboard. But Morales wins the scene where he teaches his teacher that he knows how to read minds , and that he knows fear when he sees it. Up to now, Morales plays the youth as a charming, goofy kid, with only the usual hang-ups about not wanting to help around the house. Suddenly we see him as a threat.

Here there's a strong signal of the darker play that "Tamer of Horses" could have been and still could be, if Mastrosimone went all the way with his subject--if, for instance, he questioned the idea that this fairly smug yuppie couple (seen here as a black couple) is in a moral position to educate this boy--as opposed to teaching him to read.

At present, he is contented to skim the surface, in which he is encouraged by director Bill Bushnell, who clearly wants to give the audience a good time in the theater. Mastrosimone's play does that with D. Martyn Bookwalter's platform set contributing to its excitement as a wrestling match--including some real wrestling. Mastrosimone does not spare the horses.

'TAMER OF HORSES' William Mastrosimone's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Producer Diane White. Director Bill Bushnell. Set and light design D. Martyn Bookwalter. Costumes Christine Lewis Hoover. Original music composed and performed by Joe Morton and Kenny Lehman. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Assistant director M. Neema Barnette. Stage manager Jill Johnson. With Joe Morton, Lynn Whitfield, Esai Morales. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2. Closes Dec. 14. Tickets $10-$22. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599.

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