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INNOCENTS GET LOST IN AMERICA IN ‘BIGNESS’

“It’s a parody of the pioneer trek West,” said writer/composer Paul Lacques of his “The Curse of Bigness,” opening Saturday at downtown’s Wallenboyd. “The main characters are the archetypal American couple, who do their jobs and watch a lot of TV. Then they get the notion to open a video rental store in Wyoming. In their travels, they stumble on spasms of the Old West: Calamity Jane, a country singer down on his luck, the proprietor of the Museum of Giants.

“It’s bits and pieces of real life, but it adds up to something surreal,” added Lacques (whose polka-themed “Rotondi” had a smash run at the Boyd St. Theater in 1985). “Even the characters aren’t quite real. They’re like a lot of people: media-saturated, with four cable channels and a VCR--television is their only contact with other points of view. So going out West, they’re completely naive. They don’t know how to grow food, they don’t know how big the country is. They can’t see characters (like Calamity Jane) as hallucinatory, because they don’t have any base in reality.”

The best place to find that , Lacques feels, is precisely in the seeking, searching, pioneer spirit. “I think that man is designed to live on the frontier. He thrives on action, adventure, confronting the unknown. If he isn’t challenged, he becomes fat, unhealthy and prematurely aged. These are frontier times, you know, not placid times. But people are sleepwalking: they get in their cars, go to the movies, rent videos--and they don’t recognize what’s going on around them.”

The source of that malaise?

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“People are making decisions and they’re not educated--the whole country is very uneducated,” he emphasized. “Part of that is this Administration, Reagan’s know-nothing attitude. But also, people just don’t read critically; it’s too much of a job. They watch TV more than they read. So if you can come up with a good slogan--like ‘Standing Tall Against Terrorism’ or ‘Just Say No'--you’re halfway home. These are the meanest years I’ve ever experienced. But there doesn’t seem to be any will to change it.”

“I couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I became a producer,” explained Edward Lewis. “But more than 30 films (including “Spartacus” “Missing” and “The River”), I-don’t-know-how-many TV shows and one Broadway show (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) later, I’d gotten to a point where I decided to do what I always wanted and loved. So I started to write screenplays, a novel no one’s seen--and out of that came the idea for this show.”

The show is “The Good Life,” a new musical (with book and lyrics by Lewis, music by Randy Edelman) that recently opened at the Gene Dynarksi Theatre.

“It begins with the stock market crash in 1929 and ends (in the present),” Lewis offered. “The main character is a man who’s principled, believes in things--and at 70, remains a militant, optimistic person, involved in what’s going on in the future. And you know, that’s been the theme of my own life. I’m bothered by the cynicism and negativity everywhere today. I’m an optimist; I believe there can be a good life. And I’ve tried to make pictures that are positive, have an upbeat point of view.”

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He acknowledged that some of those old movie techniques have no doubt had an effect on his playwriting. “As a guy who never wrote a musical, I think I wrote an atypical one: 18 scenes (and as many cast members). I’m sure the smart thing would have been to write something for eight people and two sets. But I didn’t know better.”

Peter Dennis, whose “Bother!” (a one-man reading of the stories of A. A. Milne) charmed local audiences at the Strasberg Theatre last winter, is back for an encore visit, opening Tuesday at the Coronet Theatre. Yet it’s a visit that might not have happened: In spite of popular and critical kudos (he received L.A. Weekly and Drama-Logue awards for the show), Dennis had a hard time convincing U.S. officials to let him come back.

“If not for my producer Christopher Toyne, I wouldn’t be here,” he noted. “After a big ‘No’ from American immigration and Actors Equity, I probably would have given up.” The basis of that initial decision? “That I wasn’t an artist of sufficient merit or ability to perform. Not having heard of me--because untill December, 1986, I wasn’t known to America--their attitude was, ‘We’ve quite enough arts over here, thank you very much.’ ”

For the British actor, who began telling tales of Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, Eyeore and Christopher Robin in 1976--and has since performed the piece all over the world--last year’s local reception was especially warming.

“I couldn’t believe what the press wrote about ‘Bother!,’ ” he said. “Not for my own sake--I don’t care that people say, ‘Oh, isn’t Peter Dennis wonderful'--but because of the material . In America, there’s a strong background of Disney (animation and presentation of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters), which, as Christopher Milne says, has nothing to do with the works of his father. And as it turns out, Americans seem to understand Milne better than the British.”

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: A production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” opened last month at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to a mixed bag of reviews.

Said The Times’ Dan Sullivan: “The effect was of an affectionate revival, rather than a searching one. One enjoyed Charles Hallahan’s Doc and Tyne Daly’s Lola, in the way that one enjoys relatives one doesn’t have to see too often. There was something quaint, almost cute, about them--his fussiness, her gullibility.” (Dan Sullivan takes another look at ‘Sheba’ on Page 37.)

From Lee Melville in Drama-Logue: “This production of ‘Sheba’ shares the same problem as its predecessors at LATC--which is the director seems to lack confidence in the writing. . . . Unless a director can improve upon a classic work, why tamper with it?” He added, however, that “despite the misreading of the play by director Ray Danton and most of the actors, Tyne Daly as the slatternly Lola turns in a magnificent performance, rooted in honesty and showered with simplicity.”

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In the Herald-Examiner, Richard Stayton carped on the popularity factor of “Cagney & Lacey.” “ ‘Sheba’ is being done because Tyne Daly is doing it, of course. Already her fans have preordained this LATC production hit status.” Although allowing that “Hallahan superbly maintains Doc’s petrified dignity,” Stayton was not mollified. “Danton understands the suffocating banality of Lola and Doc’s marriage . . . but never allows Inge’s hidden tragedy to surface.”

On the other hand, Ed Kaufman, in the Hollywood Reporter, dubbed the staging “splendid.” “Credit Ray Danton with keeping the production straightforward and honest to the spirit of Inge; while Daly and Hallahan are both touching and wonderful.” And from Daily Variety’s Kathy O’Steen: “The classic tale of lost youth and longing is in fine form in its latest outing at LATC, due to top-notch production values and fine performances that help to realize the timeless quality of this piece.”


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