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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Rent a Family’ Pays Price for Taking on a Radio Play

Times Theater Writer

At the heart of Joe Frank’s short radio play, “Rent a Family, Part One,” lies a provocative idea: That just as we rent and abandon everything else in our society--cars, apartments, furniture, clothes, cooks, cleaners, escorts and other companions, why not rent a family for a day, a week, a month? The implications are clear.

At the heart of Paul Verdier’s stage adaptation of Frank’s “Rent a Family” (now playing in plain English at Stages Trilingual Theatre) lies the same provocative idea. Never mind the satirical jab behind Frank’s words. There is something there that stings in deep and much deadlier fashion.

It is the plausibility of such a notion. The very idea, couched as it is in soothing corporate conundrums and ad-agency jargon, has a chilling effect on any audience, but particularly a live one with its collective unconscious huddled in a small dark room. It is . . . agitating. It typifies much, if not all, that is wrong with our American lives. People are collectively unnerved.

They react.

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That is the strongest case that can be made for Verdier’s attempt to stage a radio play, which, by its very definition, is a static affair.

The director splits our focus between a meeting of two corporate executives and two experts who discuss the merits and demerits of the RAF (Rent a Family) Corp.--and the account of a divorcee with children and few options who decides to take a job hiring out with this corporation.

For an hour, we hear the pros and cons from both sides. The corporate panel is the conscience of the piece, examining it from all angles like a corpse.

In highly stylized and frequently hilarious fashion, the impassive experts (Tony Pandolfo, Charles Parks) and executives (Tom Fuccello, Kenneth Danziger) rationalize the advantages of renting a family, of not making commitments (“it allows people to be more spontaneous”), of the idea as the sine qua non of the free enterprise system, and of the long-term effects on the children. Instead of being stuck with one father, a variety of fathers offers a smorgasbord of experiences--what could be better than that? So it goes.

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From the divorcee’s point of view, things proceed more cautiously. Eleanor (an eloquent Grace Zabriskie) is prudent as she approaches this new career. She tries to be careful--as careful as it is possible to be. There are lots of forms to fill out. Lots of screening. Everyone at RAF is very pleasant. There’s no pressure. She and the children are videotaped for prospective renters. Prospective renters are videotaped so she can see them . It’s computer dating. Harmless. If she doesn’t like the looks of the guy, she doesn’t have to take the job. It’s OK. Others will be along. Everything’s OK. Everyone’s OK. Everything’s . . . really nice. So Eleanor tries it.

Addressing us from a corner of the tiny Stages auditorium, she outlines her concerns, shares her thoughts with us. But as she investigates, it begins to seem . . . workable. Possible. She’s even able to develop enthusiasm for the idea.

Right about then, of course, something happens to illuminate another, more scabrous aspect of our American lives. It is a predictable but chilling finale to Eleanor’s hapless little saga.

This must work beautifully as theater for the ear. Frank is a master of provocative understatement who looks at contemporary behavior through a more timeless moral prism and knows exactly where to aim for the kill. He indicts a society sick with terminal cynicism, fulfilling Oscar Wilde’s worst nightmares of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing--and paying more dearly than it knows for the lapse.

But is “Rent a Family” theater for the stage? Not really.

The suspense is the same either way: We are told, not shown, what happens. This is discursive theater where all action is virtually motionless and the stage bare except for a table and chairs. The characters don’t move from the spot where we first see them. No. The only advantage to watching “Rent a Family” on stage is that of experiencing it with an audience of live, listening bodies--and talking about it afterward.

As such, and only as such, it is recommended, particularly since Verdier has directed with considerable wit and everyone in the cast is good at restrained emphasis. If it’s action you want, you won’t find it here. But if you’re after moral gymnastics, try it.

At 1540 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with matinees Sundays at 3, until May 7. Tickets: $15; (213) 465-1010).

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