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STAGE REVIEW : Fresh Situation and Comedy Missing From ‘Whole Half!’

Hindi Brooks is a writer with a few stage credits, but her primary work has been for television. As a veteran scripter, Brooks was responsible for several episodes of “Fame” and “Eight Is Enough.”

Knowing that, it shouldn’t be surprising that her latest stage comedy, “The Whole Half!,” premiering at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana, has sitcom TV stamped all over it. This good-natured but flyweight entertainment--reminiscent of dozens of prime-time offerings from “The Odd Couple” to “Eight Is Enough"--appeals to the middle of the road, the common denominator.

In fact, this story about the ill-matched sweethearts, mid-life Flo (Marion Ross) and mid-life Julie (Paul Michael), and their nagging kids (Michele Buffone and Remy O’Neill) would fit right into, say, the 9 p.m. slot any night of the week. The TV brain trust has certainly done worse over the years. “The Whole Half!,” with its never-too-late-for-love point of view, has, at least, a pleasant attitude.

But as a one-shot stage experience, it is lacking as an event, even with roast beef thrown in. The situation is too mundane to really be involving, and the laughs, although they come every now and then, are pretty tired (physical humor is big here) and not sufficient to sustain a two-hour show.

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Still, a recent performance seemed to please the audience, a mixed group that apparently found the contrast of Ross’ upper-middle-class Flo, a fidgety woman with a heap of love to give, and Michael’s blue-collar Julie, a hard-drinking, straight-talking man with a heap of love to give, diverting enough. The approval may have come, at least in part, because it all had such a familiar air, just like watching a comedy on TV, but with real, live actors.

The Lynn Phillip Seibel-directed production does benefit from the performance of Michael, who achieves a certain likable gruffness with Julie that allows Flo’s attraction to him to approach plausibility. The relaxed actor conveys a self-confident insouciance and Everyman quality that draws Flo in.

But Brooks is still pushing it. Her point may be that anybody can find love with anybody, but these two really do seem from different planets. When Julie drops by Flo’s fancy home (Al Hampton’s set is serviceably elegant) to change a fuse, she is initially appalled by his grubby overalls and direct talk. Considering her social experiences and conditioning, this makes perfect sense.

But lonely woman that she is (her doctor husband recently died), she decides to give him a chance. He smirkingly eyes her up and down, soils her white chi-chi couch with his oily clothes, guzzles all her booze and, wouldn’t you know it, Flo falls for him anyway, in a matter of minutes. As everybody knows, a happy ending on TV is much better than an unhappy one.

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This odd couple’s differences don’t pose any problems; the trouble comes from their grown-up kids, both busybodies intent on complaining about their own lives and breaking up this new relationship. Fat chance. Both O’Neill, as Julie’s too-intense daughter, and Buffone, as Flo’s mousy daughter, bring animation to the roles.

One thing that can be said about Ross’ performance is that it never lacks for animation. Ross, best known for playing the sweet but dim Mrs. Cunningham on the long-running “Happy Days” series, is frenetic to a fault. Her Flo throws her arms around, makes nervous expressions constantly and shouts in kind of a flustered plaint.

The problem is that the character is only defined in this way, and we don’t get to learn more about her. Ross is better during the more subdued romantic moments when she seems more at ease; it is through these passages that we see a bit of why Julie would want to make love to her in the first place.

‘THE WHOLE HALF!’

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A Harlequin Dinner Playhouse production of Hindi Brooks’ new comedy. Directed by Lynn Phillip Seibel. With Marion Ross, Paul Michael, Michele Buffone and Remy O’Neill. Set by Al Hampton. Costumes by Barbara Hampton. Lighting by Jason Petrasich. Music by D. Jay Bradley. Plays Tuesdays through Wednesdays at 8:15 p.m. (dinner 6:30 p.m.); Fridays at 9 p.m. (dinner at 7:15 p.m.); Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (dinner at 6:30 p.m.); Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (dinner at 5:30 p.m.), with 1 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday (brunch at 11:15 p.m.). Continues through Oct. 30 at 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Tickets: $23-$29. (714) 979-5511.


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