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STAGE REVIEWS : California Play Festival Takes a New York Detour

Times Staff Writer

The first California Play Festival got off to a low-key--some might say lukewarm--beginning Monday at South Coast Repertory with a staged reading of a comic work-in-progress about several aging New York yuppies caught up in a heartfelt search for love.

The opening scene of Jeremy Lawrence’s “Romantics” unfolds in a Manhattan singles bar where Peter, a melancholy kind of guy, meets J.D., a melancholy kind of gal who finds a lot of things “just this side of depressing"--one of her favorite refrains, along with “I’m not meeting anybody today.”

Peter gets the biggest laugh when he reveals that he doesn’t feel nearly as lucky as a writer friend of his who made a bundle on a book called “Memphis Meshugenah,” which is about growing up Jewish and gay in the industrial South and was almost made into a movie.

It is that kind of scene in that kind of play. (And we thought this theater company looked down its nose at Neil Simon.)

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The next scene takes place at an unidentified beach on Long Island, doubtless somewhere in the Hamptons. Unfortunately for Peter’s friend Brad, who is not a melancholy kind of guy, Susan, the gal he has brought around to the beach house, “has forgotten how to laugh.” Literally. She gives an actual demonstration.

Susan is not searching for love, by the way. She is searching for meaning. But, as someone says of her, she is the kind of philosopher who would “own the complete Shirley MacLaine.” That got a very appreciative laugh from the half-filled theater.

A more trenchant line in that scene, which all true Manhattanites can appreciate, had to do with a cacophonous panhandler in the 72nd Street subway station who bombards subway riders on his electric piano and says: “Like it or not, I’m part of your life.”

Did we say this was the launch of the California Play Festival? We took SCR literary manager John Glore’s word for it. He introduced “Romantics” as CalFest’s “kickoff event” and promised much more like it. (Let us hope not. We would rate the material as something of a touchback.)

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In fact, we can guarantee the festival’s spiritual geography will change when Marlane Meyer’s black comedy “The Geography of Luck” has its world premiere May 16 on the Second Stage. If that production is anything remotely like its staged reading at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in February, theatergoers will discover the meaning of real belly laughs.

SCR insiders also vow that Beth Henley’s “Abundance,” which will have its world premiere April 21 on the Mainstage, will deepen the CalFest terrain. And Robert Daseler’s “Dragon Lady,” which will bow May 6 on the Second Stage, is described as “absolutely Californian.”

But, like it or not, back to the searing soap-opera world of those romantic New Yorkers.

Did we say that Peter has been living with Betsy for 20 years? She is a tolerant sort of gal, able to overlook Peter’s affair with J.D. As Betsy says: “Peter and I have a shared horizon.” Or, as Peter tells Brad, who is about to marry Morgana: “I guess sometimes people have to love each other.”

The trouble is, as J.D. says, “options are the curse of modern romance.” And wimpy platitudes, at least at this stage of Lawrence’s writing, are the curse of “Romantics.”

‘ROMANTICS’

A staged reading of “Romantics” by Jeremy Lawrence was directed by Eli Simon on the Mainstage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. With Marcia Firesten, Robert Schenkkan, Joan McMurtrey, Michael Canavan, Heather Lee and Katie Mitchell. Casting by Martha McFarland. Dramaturgy by John Glore.


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