STAGE REVIEW : Tasty, Enjoy-While-It-Lasts Fare at 'Cafe 50's'

Times Theater Writer

This is the year of extraterrestrial theater.

We've had a young woman trading bodies with an older man in "Prelude to a Kiss"; a man inhabited by the soul of a deer in "The Last Hunt"; extra-earthly goings-on in "The Promise"--and now comes Steve Kluger's "Cafe 50's," a tangy comedy with a "Heaven Can Wait" twist.

In this snappy entertainment at Burbank's Victory Theatre, Kluger (who once wrote an equally lively play about the Boston Red Sox called "Bullpen") focuses on a small burger joint in Venice that is a mere 10 hours away from the wrecking ball. The time is 1964. There's this funny jukebox that turns itself on and off and picks its own songs. The rocker clientele is getting older and the Cafe is not all that's in danger of being shattered.

For the better part of Act I, Kluger introduces us to the "Peanut Gang," denizens of this derelict greasy spoon, who go by such flavorful, wistful names as T-Bird, Streaker, Melody, Hound Dog and Johnny Angel. They're pushing 35 now and are not too sure about how their lives will go once the Cafe is gone. Johnny Angel (who owns the joint with T-Bird) has just fessed up that he's been told he has Hodgkin's disease (this is a comedy?), when in walks Venus, this well-named uninvited guest of the female gender, whose Harley-Davidson has just developed a problem.

Things get more spacey in Act II, but also a little overextended. The oddly endearing plot takes a few too many turns, though its twists are always sustained with plenty of spirit. Substance is not the essence of this comedy; a kind of rowdy, nostalgic fun is.

Kluger has a way with slick conversational idiom and is clearly well plugged into the '50s (even if he does put the apostrophe in "Cafe 50's" in the wrong place). But while in "Cafe 50's" he has a ball with the emotional memorabilia of the period and with fitting in all the pieces of the puzzle (the Kennedy assassination, the death of Buddy Holly, "American Pie" and a raft of '50s and '60s songs that come over that otherworldly jukebox), he's careful to use them--richly--more as context than text.

Mark W. Travis has directed this fast-paced confection so lucidly that he manages to escape some of the three-ring pitfalls inherent in the overly busy script. He's well assisted by a company of savvy actors who have a super-good time dodging one another on stage and portraying their clever if slightly cartoonish characters.

Clayton Landey turns in an assertive T-Bird, who conceals his worries about incipient baldness and other aging emotions behind strong language and bluster. His fundamentally lovable kleptomaniacal friend Hound Dog is expertly played by Kerry Fusaro in the show's most developed performance. Brett Cullen is a restrained but hip Johnny Angel, while Sharonlee McLean rules this male roost as the attractive Melody, the wisecracking, gum-chewing waitress with a big heart who can't boil water but sure has a way with a wrench.

Tongue-tied with love for her is Eddie Frierson as the timid, tender Streaker, a skateboard surfer with a thumping heart and mini-brain. And finally there is the mysterious Venus--more Venus Fly Trap than Roman goddess--played by sexy Page Layne Miller (who also co-produced with Kluger).

You can almost smell the residual grease in Jerzy C. Cybulski's seedy neo-realistic set, for which he also did the surrealistic lighting. Costumer Roz Moore captures the flavor of the late '50s without falling for the obvious. Sound designer Steven Barker's bulldozers are often too loud, in contrast to his carefully-timed emissions from the temperamental jukebox.

Eventually, "Cafe 50's" lives up to its own junk food subtitle as "a medium rare comedy with a shake." It is rich, juicy, foamy, tasty and satisfying while it lasts. You won't find much solid nutrition in it, but it's sure fun to eat.

Performances at 3326 W. Victory Blvd. in Burbank run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50-$15; (213) 465-0070.

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