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STAGE REVIEW : Strike Theatre Offers ‘3 for 1!’ at Callboard

Times Theater Writer

A couple of weeks ago the Strike Theatre launched its summer repertory season at the Callboard with Cyril Tourneur’s grim “The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Last weekend, the company followed that up with three contemporary one-acts--simply called “3 for 1!"--that should have been, comparatively speaking, a piece of cake.

Should have been. Weren’t. This energetic young company, new to Los Angeles, is more at home, it seems, with Jacobean melodrama than 20th-Century comedy. Granted, “3 for 1!” offers off-the-wall pieces whose satirical intent (in two out of three cases, anyway) Tourneur himself might have admired. It’s the edge that’s missing here, the sense of absurdist style.

The first short play, Nancy Beverly’s “Attack of the Moral Fuzzies,” is an attempt to see modern life as a game show: Make those difficult moral choices, win a prize. What’ll it be? Heart transplants for adults, liver transplants for kids or better Medicare for the poor?

A clever idea, but the actors have a hard time of it, huffing and puffing with the bursts of enthusiasm television game shows require. And neither director Steve Josephson nor lighting designer Ken Scarborough help matters, the former by keeping things too hyper and the latter by keeping them too dark. (This is television, remember? A paradigm for lights.)

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No matter. Once we get the hang of what is aimed for (which is soon), the idea is spent. Only Alice Haberman as the beleaguered contestant-with-a-conscience escapes artistically (if not morally) unscathed. Everyone else is simply working too hard at being phony or vapid--attributes that shock only when they come naturally.

One might conclude that this company is perhaps too bright to play stupid convincingly. But “To Live and Die Like a Cactus,” Marguerite MacIntyre’s portrait of a bizarre love affair between a young woman named Daisy (Nell Balaban) and a young man named Gibbs (Bill Kohne) takes us through similar excesses in its determination to make wondrous her fascination with the offbeat (a strange attachment to maps) and his efforts at neutralizing it.

Again, Balaban and Kohne work overtime at delivering these curious people. The piece rambles and director Joshua D. Rosenzweig (who staged “Revenger’s Tragedy”) seems powerless to shape it, while Scarborough pursues his obsession with murkiness. There is no climactic conclusion to this commentary on modern relationships and its only obvious connection to the cactus of the title is Daisy’s prickly and immovable disposition.

Harry Kondoleon’s “The Fairy Garden,” on the other hand, does have a perfectly splendid climax--and displays no shortage of imagination getting to it. Again directed by Rosenzweig, it has brittle, Noel Cowardish repartee, dispensed by the bored denizens of affluent (if not high) society. It is festooned with flippant comedic violence descended of Joe Orton. And its crowning achievement might have been borrowed from Jean Giraudoux: a take-charge fairy (of the Tinker Bell kind) with a good head for business, a proper heart and, as we discover, a sense of elfin solidarity.

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This final piece, which takes up the evening’s second half, should be its highlight. Kondoleon’s play is an original--an unfettered fantasy with a clear sense of style. If only the Strike actors possessed an equally clear sense of how to embrace it. “The Fairy Garden” may be set in a patio (Kevin Adams provided the pretty, trellised set, brightly lit--at last--by Scarborough), but its style is drawing-room comedy. They might as well be playing Oscar Wilde.

As it is, only Paola de Florio, as the green-garbed garden fairy, delivers an enchanted performance. Balaban (a rich, bored wife), Kohne (a “mechanic” with a few surprises up his kazoo) and Christian J. LeBlanc (a bisexual hunk with the timid name of Mimi) manage some semi-enchantment. Unfortunately, Grant Heslov, who carries most of the piece as a spurned gay lover in despair, is too mannered and too whiny. Instead of being clever, urbane and acidly funny, he becomes merely grating.

This time the Strike Theatre’s grasp exceeds its reach. Who would have thought one might long for a second round of “The Revenger’s Tragedy”?

At 8451 Melrose Place in West Hollywood, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. (in repertory with “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” playing Fridays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 7 p.m.). Ends Aug. 5. Tickets: $10; (213) 466-1767.

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