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STAGE REVIEW : O’Connors Hold Family Reunion With ‘Aunt’

Times Theater Writer

There’s a new theater in Studio City--or rather an old theater newly reborn. It used to be called the Showplace, one of two small legit houses with the uncommon distinction of being situated over a bowling alley (hate the play, play the lanes).

There is some question as to whether this new 68-seat palace has been renamed the Donald O’Connor Family Theatre or the Donald O’Connor Family’s Theatre (flyers in the hall had it both ways). But judging from the lineup of O’Connors listed in the program as on stage and backstage, the second appellation may be more accurate.

The new theater opened Tuesday with that venerable old chestnut, Brandon Thomas’ “Charley’s Aunt.” It features three O’Connors: Papa Donald (a hoot as that impudent matron of the title--a role he played at Chicago’s Drury Lane about 17 years ago), son D. Frederick and daughter Alicia. Papa also directed. The house was packed. It was a party.

The production sets no new standards, breaks no records and wins no awards, but it has a sweetness and lack of pretension that almost make up for the play’s creakiness, the wing-and-a-prayer sets, the in-and-out accents and the uneven acting. It is indeed a family affair.

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There are some stage-worthy performances: suave Jack Hagarty and blustery Malcolm Rothman as the older gentlemen in lip-smacking pursuit of their unlikely target (the aunt), and Richard Merson as the ubiquitous butler Brassett. Alicia O’Connor makes a winsome Ela Delahay and Carmen Recker smartly plays Amy Spettigue as a bubbly air-head. But the balance of the company needs to get its act together, though it forged ahead gamely Tuesday and seemed to have a good time.

No one more so than O’Connor pere , whose jaunty wit, super timing and innate comic sense light up the stage and pick the show up whenever it stumbles (often). Part of his directing in this production seems to include rescuing it at regular intervals with funny personal business and comic ad-libs when lines fail or cues aren’t picked up. Those moments at Tuesday’s performance often proved more amusing than the scripted ones.

Future plans for this theater are vague, but Donald O’Connor himself is not likely to be deeply involved. Other professional commitments call. What the family does with it (namely his offspring, two more of whom are on the board of directors along with a son-in-law) remains to be seen. It can continue to go for family fun and games or it can turn serious. But if it chooses to compete on the open market, it will have to develop a point of view and some real quality control. The opportunity is there. So is the competition.

At 12655 Ventura Blvd., Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through March 26. Tickets: $22.50; (818) 761-8448 or (213) 466-1767.

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