‘Natural Affection’ at Zephyr; ‘The Melville Boys’ at Eagle; ‘Fire Escape’ at the Richmond Shepard; ‘Cousin Jack’ at Off Ramp

On occasion you wish a solidly produced Equity Waiver show wouldn’t disappear at the end of its run--that, like a can of film, you could take it off the shelf and observe it all over again a few months later. And that’s exactly what has happened with William Inge’s edgy urban drama, “Natural Affection.”

Theatre 40 did the play last spring and that same production, with the exception of two new cast members and a new set, has materialized with renewed strength at the Zephyr Theatre.

The play, greeted with critical controversy and a short 7-week run when it premiered in New York in 1963, deals, as all of Inge’s plays do, with internal bleeding. But Inge was dramatizing a particularly urban scar with the dysfunctional family in “Natural Affection,” and the play seems perfectly if distressingly at home in the late ‘80s.

Lorenzo DeStefano’s production builds like a boil in search of a lance. Carol King and Sandor Black reprise their strong performances as the central mother-son figures. Black captures his youth’s volatility and Oedipal hang-ups without a scent of melodrama--and that’s quite a feat with a character who could so easily be an urban cliche.


One newcomer is Michael Gates in a street-wise, bullying portrayal of the mother’s younger lover. A major strength of the production is the sexuality in the air between them. The other bright cast addition is Debra Sandlund, in a lovable/pathetic turn as the dim wife in the next-door apartment. Her performance has the sweetest helplessness about it. As her husband, Don Paul is bizarre; his grotesque drunken scene is almost Gothic.

The detailed apartment set designed by Richard D. Bluhm has a realistic rumpled touch, and its horizontal lines span the length of the theater.

At 7456 Melrose Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Nov. 20. Tickets: $14-$16. (213) 466-1767.

The Melville Boys’


The crisis one of the two Melville brothers is facing in this Canadian play should not even be hinted at outside the performance space at the Eagle Theatre. The information might turn off theatergoers, and that would be a shame.

Suffice to say this U.S. premiere is exceptionally well-acted by William Bumiller and Donald Nardini as a pair of factory workers arriving at a cabin for a weekend of fishing, and by Linda Thompson and Kimberly Rae as the local women who sail through the brothers’ lives with poignant and comical effect.

Toronto playwright Norm Foster’s strong dialogue, vivid characterization, and genuine, heartfelt sentiment happily obliterate the soap-opera crisis that burdens older and stable brother Nardini. Bumiller’s younger, carefree brother has a charmingly lecherous encounter with the luminous Rae as his larky, good-time counterpart. Thompson is equally affecting as Rae’s quieter and deeper, albeit misguided, sister.

The neat human geometry of the play is too pat, but the performances and a compelling momentum by director Carla Layton propel the production. The lighting design by Larry R. Gries (who also did the cabin interior), is too bright and fails to catch the full moody measures of night and day.

At 182 N. Robertson, Beverly Hills, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12-$15. (213) 466-1767.


Fire Escape’ AIDS dramas are certainly different from other ailment plays because the material seems so much more urgent. On the other hand, some AIDS plays appear derivative of earlier works on the subject, and that is the problem with Ken Smyth’s “Fire Escape” at the Richmond Shepard Theatre.

Wayne Pere plays a wiry TV kiddie showman and puppeteer, a clever guy who lives in a comfortable apartment connected by a convenient fire escape to solid friends living one apartment over. Sue Lane’s rich set design is splendidly detailed in a horizontal sweep along the entire length of one side of the house; the experience is a bit like watching a tennis match.


But the first half hour is slow and uneventful, establishing characters who seem minimally interesting. Larry Randolph’s staging gains welcome focus when the protagonist contracts AIDS. And a later plot point concerning a straight/gay encounter contributes a sobering and dramatic jolt.

A next-door married couple (Joe Menza and Stephanie Shine) are moderately viable figures, but the TV entertainer’s agent (Dawn Wells) and his lover (William Tucker) are stock characters. Actor Pere gives his central character a haunted, even affable complexity. But the play ultimately is a melodrama, and the ending is too cloying to be moving. The production, with original music by David Francis, far exceeds the play itself.

At 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through Oct. 30. Tickets: $12-$15. (213) 466-1767.

‘Cousin Jack’ There’s a dozy sweetness to “Cousin Jack” at the Off Ramp Theatre that lingers cozily in the honky-tonk air of this Louisiana memory play.

Director-writer Helen G. Rose has created down-home charaacters, patrician and swamp hand alike, who enjoy an authentic texture and who seem to arise from the playwright’s own experience.

The production lacks sufficient, sustained conflict to sufficiently carry its two-act, two-hour running time. And structurally the scenes seem to meander in rather aimless fashion. Nevertheless, mood and tone are warmly felt here.

The entitled cousin Jack, in a pleasant, languid portrayal by Kirk Sisco, is a charming womanizer and syrupy-talking salesman who is finally snared by one of the production’s multiple blondes. Lorrelei Deardorff’s spoiled rich girl, Jeanine Jackson’s waitress, and Crystal Shaw’s true love are all endearing impressions.

At 1953 Cahuenga Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m., through Oct. 30. Tickets: $12. (213) 465-8059.