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Objectively, Ayn Rand’s No Dramatist

Ayn Rand is known for “objectivism,” her philosophy that puts the confident risk-taker at the center of the universe. She is not known for writing whodunits.

But she did come up with one back in 1935. “Night of January 16th” was Rand’s first venture as a playwright and, apparently, her first try in the mystery genre. The author who has drawn enthusiastic followers and persistent critics alike for her objectivism-postulating novels (“The Fountainhead” is best known) should have stuck with the long form.

“Night of January 16th,” revived locally at the L.P. Repertory Dinner Theatre (aka Brobdingnag) in Tustin, was creamed by reviewers back then and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. The social scientists who say her philosophy could be less murky should take a look at this oblique snore.

At the center of this courtroom drama is the mystique of Bjorn Faulkner, an international financier and symbol for objectivism run amok. He’s the original can-do guy, a zillionaire with a taste for getting ahead and putting his imprint on the world. So mighty is Bjorn that his subordinates get misty-eyed just talking about him and his mistress-secretary, Karen, just about swoons when anyone mentions his name.

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But even Bjorn, despite all his big plans, ran into trouble with some global deal he’d been working on. Things got so bad, it appears he may have committed suicide. Or maybe he was murdered. Or maybe he isn’t really dead at all.

Whatever. Anyway, the play begins with Karen (Terra Shelman) on trial for this fat cat’s death. It all starts off rather muddy and the waters get darker by the minute as a stream of oddball characters testify to what they know about the case.

Unlike a good whodunit, “The Night of January 16th” presents dizzying amounts of information but not the means to put it all together. Only the most avid mystery lover would not get bogged down in all this nonsense. Anyone with the slightest impatience is going to have trouble from the outset.

Director Timothy P. Thorn doesn’t help much. But in his defense, there’s probably not much he could do about it. “Night of January 16" is a stinker.

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In fact, sometimes it seems merely to be an excuse to parade an assortment of cliches before the audience. Let’s see, there’s the sleazy, gaudily dressed gangster (why do they always have bad Brooklyn accents?), the sexually repressed Swedish housekeeper, the hip-swinging, Kewpie-doll stripper, the shady private eye and the earnest-but-dim young cop.

The actors generate a little fun with some of these cardboard figures--Kent Phillips’ mobster and Barbara Hollis’ dancer-moll are the best--but there’s not a lot to work with. And, more often than not, everyone leans toward hamminess.

As for the principles, Shelman doesn’t bring more than a flaring passion to Karen, and the two attorneys (William J. Durkin and Jose Lambert) do the usual Perry Mason business.

The production does have one amusing trick. At the start, members of the audience are impaneled as a jury. They actually sit on stage, hear the facts and try to deliver a verdict at play’s end. They appear to be paying attention throughout--it’s some of the show’s best acting.

On Friday night, they came back with a “not guilty” verdict and were scolded by the judge (John C. Isaacs) for misreading the evidence. Considering what they had to work with, who could blame them? “Night of January 16th” should have been declared a mistrial.

‘NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH’

An L.P. Repertory production of Ayn Rand’s mystery drama. Directed by Timothy P. Thorn. With John Gray, Jose Lambert, J.D. Fiske, William J. Durkin, Terra Shelman, John C. Isaacs, Tom Orr, Ella Williams, Manny Siegall, Warren Nix, Julie Gray, Archie Gibson, Stephanie L. Thomas, Ruth Siegall, Kent Phillips, Gerald Weller and Barbara Hollis. Set by Timothy P. Thorn. Music and lighting by William J. Durkin. Costumes by Stephanie L. Thomas. Plays Tuesday through Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at 15732 D Tustin Village Way, Tustin. Tickets: $18-$25. Information: (714) 835-9611.


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