According to "Nightside," reporters on the graveyard shift at Chicago police headquarters endure lousy hours, frigid winters, the omnipresence of crime and the knowledge that they're either greenhorns or has-beens. At least the greenhorns can hope for something better. For the has-beens, there's no relief in sight.
Philip Reed--who has been there--ably enlivens this grim situation in "Nightside," a duet for greenhorn and has-been at the Burbage. Although his plot becomes clunky and contrived during the second act, this is a play that's worth the rewriting effort.
It's blessed with two perceptive performances in Bob Sykes' staging. Skinny, gravel-voiced Barry Cutler plays 41-year-old Bernie Spirko, the veteran. Bernie likes to believe he's between better assignments, and he clutches the rumors of an opening on the education beat as tightly as he clings to his Bearcat 5000, a super-duper police radio.
Bernie alternately tries to crush and encourage his competition, Leonard Cauley--a black, 27-year-old novice who sees his job as a way out of the steel mills. Stanley Bennett Clay's Leonard is so likable that it's a shock when he reveals his own ruthless streak in the second act.
Reed has written too many revelations into the home stretch, and some of them don't wash.
We learn that Leonard's affinity for the police beat is based on an incident that would more likely have driven him away from such work. And Reed softens the final blows to Bernie with sudden news from the domestic front.
Until then, "Nightside" seems authentic. Contributing to that impression are James French's dreary press room, Buddy Tobie's harsh lighting, Karen Keech's carefully thought-out costumes and the forlorn, late-night sounds designed by Thom Spadaro.
Performances are at 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m., through March 15 (213-478-0897).
Jeff Stetson's "The Meeting" plays much better at Inner City Cultural Center than it did at Los Angeles Actors Theatre in 1984. Stetson still hasn't cooked up a credible reason for Malcolm X to invite Martin Luther King Jr. to his hotel room--on the day in 1965 that Malcolm's home was fire-bombed. You'd think he would be preoccupied. Yet the premise is easier to accept this time, perhaps because the level of bombast has decreased.
Malcolm still talks for public instead of private consumption, but maybe he was like that. At least the two men no longer stoop to fond reminiscences in the past tense, as they did in the original version.
The considerable impact of this production may stem from its cast.
Felton Perry resembles King more than I would have imagined, especially in profile, and he has mastered the Georgia accent and the rhythm of King's speech. His eyes gaze at Malcolm with that ineffable combination of strength and compassion that's so striking in our memories of King.
Dick Anthony Williams has the potential to be just as persuasive as Malcolm, but he wasn't quite as comfortable with his lines last Sunday. Taurean Blacque provides a few laughs as Malcolm's devoted bodyguard, who insists on frisking the nonviolent Dr. King.
Judyann Elder directed on Virgil Woodfork's full-scale hotel room.
Performances at 1308 S. New Hampshire are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through March 1 (213-387-0801).
'THE BOYS IN THE BACKROOM'
"The Boys in the Backroom," at Second Stage, also presents invented dialogue between recent historical figures, but the intention, style and result could hardly be more different from that of "The Meeting." The intention is satirical, the style is broad, and the result is sophomoric and forgettable.
In Scottish playwright Andrew Dallmeyer's fantasy, ultimate power resides in the spear that pierced the side of Christ. His play traces the transfer of that spear from Hitler to Gen. Riflepower (Eisenhower) to Howard Huge (Hughes) to Harry Oasis (Ari Onassis) to Dick Fixer (guess who) to the current President, Ronnie Raygun. Somehow, the Trilateral Commission escaped scot-free from Dallmeyer's barbs.
The play is only five years old, and the last scene was revised to reflect the Iran- contras scandal. Yet most of Dallmeyer's jokes are worn-out. Even that final scene isn't as sharp as a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch on the same subject. Perhaps Dallmeyer has never seen "Saturday Night Live" or the San Francisco Mime Troupe or Conrad's cartoons, or any of a number of other reasons why his play is superfluous.
Michael Schlitt's actors display a facility for the style--which isn't surprising, considering that many of them were associated with the Actors Gang production of "Violence" last summer. Better they should develop their own topical material, like "Violence," instead of tired imports like this one.
Performances are at 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. (213-826-7975).