STAGE REVIEW : Still Manstruck in 'Manhattan'

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Word has it that John Patrick Shanley wrote "Women of Manhattan" (which opened over the weekend at the Tiffanny Theatre) before he wrote "Moonstruck." In some ways, it feels like a precursor to the film--not so much in blow-by-blow events, but in the mood it sets.

More than mood, it's a psychological tone--an ennui of the '80s. We're talking here about three women, three upscale, affluent friends, doing what women friends do best: sharing secrets. Some are love secrets and some are sexual secrets, with a marked difference between the two. At the end of the '80s there is dissatisfaction, a search for excitement, a fear of excitement, and an uncertainty about what either may be.

The hype on the play describes it as looking for Mr. Right and finding Mr. Goodbar. That's close. "I flirt," says one of the three, "therefore I am." This tells you as much about the anguish as the eagerness.

Actually, Southerner Rhonda-Louise (Sharon Wyatt) has had Mr. Goodbar and let him go, but he left his sneakers behind. Those tired, red smellies are enough for her now. "I need to be alone," she admits under duress. What is she after? "Esteem, true self-esteem."

So she pours drinks and free advice in her House Beautiful apartment and listens avidly to the ennui of others: married Billie (Susan Anton), who wishes her marriage to Bob could be more exciting--and precise Judy (Nicole Orth-Pallavicini), the reluctant loner in tailored suits who wishes she were being wooed by other than gay men.

This gives her friends a project: saving Judy from herself. Billie arranges a blind date on condition Judy will approach it with an open mind and a new set of clothes.

The admonishments become clear when Judy's date, Duke (Charles Salter Jr.), turns out to be black, and their main differences are that he's had too many women (including Billie, not so long ago) while Judy's had too few men.

Up to this point Shanley's banter has been bright, bouncy and bland. Here the play briefly makes a few iconoclastic strikes, to offer in the end only a handful of honest laughs and few answers beyond temporary sexual relief for Judy.

Shanley is not the first playwright to paint himself into a corner by focusing his comedy on problems without particular solutions. A recent example of this was Stephen Metcalfe's "Emily" at San Diego's Old Globe (and later New York)--a comedy that also fiddles with words and style at the expense of passion and ideas.

The result in "Women of Manhattan" is a round-robin play with a dull second scene between Billie and her too-caring husband, Bob (Malcolm Groome), designed to show that bliss can be just as stultifying as unbliss for those who want something more from a relationship than communion over barbecued hamburgers.

Its final Epiphany is reminiscent of nothing so much as Chekhov's "Three Sisters" pining after the over-prized Moscow. Romance. Escape. Pie in the sky. Or at least a world where life's sign-posts offer clearer directions. By then Judy has had her days and nights with Duke, Bob has made Billie ecstatic by giving her a black eye ("At last, the honeymoon is over!" is Anton's victorious cry) and Rhonda-Louise . . . well Rhonda-Louise still has her red sneakers.

But there is no more ultimate satisfaction for the viewer in this production than there is for Judy or Billie or Rhonda-Louise in this play. For one thing director Claudia Weitsman hasn't managed to pump real energy into the show, and while Anton is tall and stunning to look at, she plays more limp than she looks.

The same goes for Salter's Duke who keeps dropping the ball no matter how many times Orth-Pallavicini picks it up. Groome is stuck with a blandly written Bob whom he invests with a certain nice-guy propriety, and after one gets used to the sometimes impenetrable thickness of her Southern accent, Wyatt's voyeuristic Rhonda-Louise holds things together with whatever zest she can muster in the limitations of her role.

The physical presentation is attractive: a handsome (if snug) set by David Scaglione, decent lighting by Jim Blickensderfer (Weitsman and Blickensderfer also produced), with some nonintrusive original music by Mark Anthony.

But context does not a text make. For all its trappings, this play is paper thin: Fun for a TV minute and just as forgettable--a pre-"Moonstruck" exercise from the prolific Shanley (who has given us the more savage and stageworthy "Savage in Limbo" and "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea") in preparation perhaps for bigger and better.

At 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. (No show Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23.) Tickets: $16.50-$18.50; (213) 652-6165).

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