Ron Milner's lively and penetrating "Checkmates," a roundelay for two black married couples, has returned to the Westwood Playhouse with three new members in its cross-generational quartet.
Marla Gibbs, Richard Lawson and Vanessa Williams have joined the original production's Paul Winfield.
It's an explosively funny combination, which is fine when the play is supposed to be explosively funny, but less fine when Milner aims for quieter effects.
A caveat: I saw the original cast at its first Los Angeles home, the Inner City Cultural Center, instead of the larger Westwood. Maybe it's necessary to push those jokes across the footlights a little more forcefully at the Westwood.
Also, I saw the current cast on an opening night that doubled as a benefit. Sometimes it seems as if benefit audiences are more determined to whoop it up, just to get their money's worth of laughter.
Whatever the reason, this audience kept laughing even when Laura, the younger wife (Williams), pulled a gun on her husband Syl (Lawson). It was as if the cast couldn't turn off the comic momentum they had earlier established.
Certainly Gibbs, as the older wife, creates much of that momentum. Her trademarks--those raised eyebrows, that exclamatory "ooh" she does, the snap with which she dishes out the retorts--are all easily adaptable to this role.
More surprising is Gibbs' ability to play a 17-year-old in her first flashback. With her hair slicked back and a juvenile flounce to her step, she's much more convincing as a teen-ager than is Winfield.
Lawson plays Syl with a sizzling physicality. When his predecessor, Denzel Washington, talked on the phone (which Syl does much of the time), we listened to the vocal virtuosity; with Lawson, we watch the choreography.
By happenstance, Lawson also helps us see that Syl, who is very much an '80s man, isn't merely an '80s man. At least he pulls this off for those of us who saw him last summer as the '20s trumpeter in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Both characters share a restless, exuberant ambition that threatens to become self-destructive.
Williams, best known for her brief reign as Miss America, handles herself well in such stellar company. She certainly "knows how to present the package," which is something Laura takes great pride in, although she lacks the concentrated intensity of the first Laura, Rhetta Greene.
The play doesn't quite have the concentrated intensity that it should have by this stage of its life, either. It's still about a half hour too long, with the motor sputtering the loudest in the last few, rather repetitive scenes.
The awkward transitions between those scenes in Woodie King's staging don't help matters. This was easier to overlook at the Inner City, six months ago, but it's surprising that Milner and King haven't streamlined it by now.
This apparent lack of rewriting even shows up in a detail that would be a cinch to fix: it's impossible for the older couple to have married 35 years ago, for they were wed before World War II and the play is set in the '80s. Gibbs and Winfield play old enough to have married before the war, so why not change that 35 to a 50?
"Checkmates" has the punch; now it needs the polish.
Performances are at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., through March 6. Tickets: $20-$28.50; (213) 208-5454 or (213) 410-1062.