STAGE REVIEW : The Menace Within 'House'

Times Theater Writer

"I want the theater to be as dangerous as an unlawful assembly," writes playwright Norman Lock. It's an elegant and startling statement made in a rambling program essay justifying his play, "The House of Correction."

In this introduction to the play that opened Friday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Lock has fascinating things to say about action and responsibility and a "Theatre of Justice" (his capitals, his coinage), to which "House" apparently belongs. It's a sticky rationale, as tentacled as an octopus that now and then entwines itself around morsels of logic.

In our modern society, the playwright argues, subtle terrorism abounds while blame is hard to place. The whole slippery business leaves us seething with frustration. It is his contention that when the old eye-for-an-eye is replaced by pass-the-buck, it leads to passing the ammunition as well. It turns people into Bernard Goetzes and worse. Steve in "The House of Correction" is a variant of this type of sociopathology. Lock's ideas lend tangy new flavor to an old form.

"The House of Correction" is not only a play but a play on words. This particular house is the place where one human being plans to "correct" a wrong that he believes was inflicted on him by another. In this unfettered world of the imagination, yearned-for retribution can take place with impunity. But any way you look at it, Lock's "House of Correction" is first, last and always a superior mystery-comedy-thriller for the stage. The loftier subtexts are dessert; they come after the fact.

It is also, and perhaps more significantly, an astonishing specimen of a nearly extinct genre. Real thrillers of the stage have been a moribund breed since they long ago surrendered to film's superior abilities with special effects. Film's advantage remained pretty much uncontested until such shows as "Cats," "Starlight Express" and "The Phantom of the Opera" came along. But no. Lock is not riding on "The Phantom's" or anyone else's chandelier. He has written a fast-moving, absurdist piece of neo-realistic suspense of the sort that works best only in the theater. It is a tribute to his talent--and to his talented director, Bradford O'Neil--that the chilling effects in "The House of Correction" are minimalist effects, achieved not at enormous expense, but with enormous ingenuity, devilishly executed here by designer Douglas D. Smith.

The premise? Unremarkable. An average yuppie couple in an average yuppie house find their average yuppie lives disrupted by a stranger. Marion (Katie King) is a cheery housewife married to the equally cheery Carl (Ron Campbell), a successful advertising copywriter. They work diligently at cloying contentment together, when in drops Steve (Christopher McDonald) and changes everything.

It won't do to tell you much more, but the methods employed by Lock, O'Neil, Smith and the commendable cast are fast, funny, clever, abrasive, surreal. No blood, no gore (a relief to the squeamish), but menace aplenty. The results are not for all markets--it is a style of theater you have to learn to like--but the timing is swift and exact and the chilling effects arrived at with masterful simplicity.

It's clear that most of the credit belongs to 23-year-old Wunderkind director O'Neil, who has made silken entertainment out of tricky reasoning that you may take or leave. Fortunately, "The House of Correction" is not a realistic play. It begs to be taken lightly. That there is a subtext with a point of view is merely meringue on the cake.

Performances at 514 S. Spring St. run Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2, until March 13. Tickets: $10.50-$25; (213) 627-5599.

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